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Fast action sought in Pennsylvania on 220-page marijuana bill

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(The Center Square) — Legislators pushing a bipartisan bill to legalize recreational marijuana warn that, without action, neighboring states will supply the drug — and carry away the tax revenue.

Reps. Aaron Kaufer, R-Luzerne, and Emily Kinkead, D-Bellevue, will soon introduce their legalization bill, written to closely overlap with a Senate proposal. They want to move fast.

“Our goal is to get this done as soon as possible,” Kaufer said. “We are circling the toilet bowl in getting something like this done.”

He argued that the legislation centers on five pillars: public safety, social equity, and criminal justice reform; leveraging the agricultural and medical marijuana program infrastructure; ending the illegal market; and creating good jobs and tax revenue.

“Smoking marijuana should not be a crime and we need to prioritize law enforcement resources,” Kaufer said. “People are actually dying from other harder drugs in today’s world — marijuana is not killing people.”

The bill is 220 pages long and proposes regulations under the Department of Agriculture for the adult-use program, “guardrails” to eliminate the illegal market, automatically expunging non-violent marijuana criminal convictions, offering priority licenses to marijuana businesses based on socio-economic equity rules, and funding public defenders along with law enforcement to enforce the new regulations.

“(States) are taking advantage of the fact that we have not (legalized cannabis),” Kinkead said. “Ohio has a majority of its permits where the dispensaries are lining up along the Pennsylvania and West Virginia border — acknowledging that there are Pennsylvania dollars to be spent on adult-use and they want to capitalize on it when we should be doing that.”

Others argued that legalization would make the rule of law more respectable.

“The continued illegalization of marijuana sends the wrong message,” said Michael O’Donnell, the district attorney of Northumberland County. “You cannot have something so commonly accepted by the public be illegal under the law. The result of this has become that it is acceptable to break the law.”

He argued that, with legalization, marijuana can then be controlled and regulated for safety.

That justification for legalization is a familiar one in the commonwealth. District attorneys rarely pursue marijuana cases and other legalization proposals have tried to avoid some pitfalls, such as conflicts with gun rights.

But the Pennsylvania House has held a series of marijuana-related hearings looking at how other states (and Canada) have brought the drug out of the illicit market. Even with a legal market, experts have warned about safety concerns. And some legislators, like Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Waynesboro, have warned that usage rates go up post-legalization and industry interests continually lobby the General Assembly for evermore expansion.

In his review of the bill, Schemel called it “monumentally bad policy” and noted it doesn’t allow localities to opt out of hosting marijuana shops.

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