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Pittsburgh legislator Emily Kinkead cosponsors new marijuana legalization bill

 Emily Kinkead
Courtesy the Kinkead campaign
Kinkead says legalization of marijuana would serve the goals of "capitalizing on the revenue and also addressing the harms that we have done through our criminal justice system"

A new bill to legalize the adult recreational use of marijuana is about to be unveiled in the state House by a bipartisan pair of legislators, including Pittsburgh's Emily Kinkead.

The measure will create a legal framework for the non-medical sale of marijuana — with priority given to licensing disadvantaged groups — while also expunging criminal charges leveled against people who were found guilty of distributing it in the past.

"We know across the board that having marijuana be illegal has done only harm in our communities," Kinkead told WESA. "And we're recognizing that it has medicinal properties, [and] the world has not ended in all the states that have legalized it recreationally."

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"Pennsylvania should be capitalizing on the revenue and also addressing the harms that we have done through our criminal justice system," she said.

The new measure is being cosponsored by Kinkead and Luzerne County Republican Aaron Kaufer. In a memo being circulated to solicit support from other House members, the two representatives argue that the time is right for the state to legalize recreational use.

They note that even as Pennsylvania has managed a "robust" medical marijuana program, "many of our neighboring states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. One of the most recent [to do so], Ohio, is primed to open their market with the lion’s share of their licenses perched on the border of Pennsylvania as they seek to take capture Pennsylvania dollars into their market."

“By prioritizing public safety and consumer protection, this legislation will build on the successful regulatory structure of the state’s medical cannabis program," said Kaufer in a statement.

Gov. Josh Shapiro made marijuana legalization and the tax revenues it would generate a part of his budget proposal — but while legalization is broadly popular with voters in both parties, the proposal has met resistance in the state Senate especially.

When the bill is introduced formally later this month — Kinkead said it will be numbered House Bill 2500 — it will join other legislation that similarly seeks to legalize recreational marijuana use, namely House Bill 2210 and a companion bill in the state Senate, Senate Bill 846. Both measures are pent up in committees.

Kinkead said the new bill differs from those earlier efforts in that it "captures more of the recent conversations around legalization that have been going on since the governor's budget proposal."

The 220-page measure would put the legalization program under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture. it would give priority to licensing small businesses and businesses owned by veterans, as well as minority- and women-owned firms. (Larger enterprises could improve their own prospects for a license by helping to get such entrepreneurs established in the market first.)

It also provides for expungement of marijuana-related charges for people who were previously convicted of having engaged in the trade that legalization would make permissible.

All of this, the sponsorship memo asserts, is intended to put an "emphasis on social equity and criminal justice reform by creating opportunities for individuals disproportionately impacted by outdated cannabis policies."

It also spells out means by which Pennsylvania farmers can grow the crop.

The earlier legislation also addresses such topics. But the other bills "don't do as much in terms of criminal justice," said Kinkead, pointing to the fact that her bill addresses situations where a person is serving a longer sentence because of marijuana-related offenses that would themselves be expunged by legalization efforts.

The bill also earmarks some tax proceeds from marijuana sales to be used to fund indigent defense: The state's failure to consistently fund public defenders' offices has spawned controversy for years, and an ACLU lawsuit earlier this month. (Local police departments would also receive a share of tax proceeds.)

Kinkead calls the set-aside "my favorite part" of the legislation.

"I'm really excited about that piece of it," she said.

It remains to be seen whether the new bill makes any headway in Harrisburg. Its introduction comes as budget deliberations — which are supposed to conclude by the end of the month — are entering a critical phase, and with only a handful of session days before the summer recess. Its return in the fall will naturally be overshadowed by the 2024 elections.

Legislation that doesn't pass by the end of the year will expire when the legislature's two-year session ends in December. And Kaufer is not running for reelection, which means the bill would need a new Republican champion to have bipartisan cosponsorship next year.

Still, Meredith Buettner of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition said the measure represents a potential step forward.

"This is the first time in recent history that we've seen a bipartisan bill in the House," she said.

Senate bills have had bipartisan backing, but Senate leadership has been discinclined to take the lead on legalization, Buettner said, and the House GOP has always been considered the toughest caucus.

"So a bipartisan effort in the House is a great first step," she said.

While the cannabis coalition is a leading advocate for the industry, Buettner said she was just delving into the bill's lengthy text and couldn't get too far into the weeds about its details. But she noted that it incorporates Shapiro's preference to have both the medical and the recreational marijuana programs placed under the purview of the state Department of Agriculture.

The medical marijuana program is currently overseen by the Department of Health — and while the industry wants the same set of regulators for medical and recreational use, there is little appetite to put Health officials in charge. The industry would prefer oversight from an independent regulatory body like the state's gaming commision, but Buettner said going through Agriculture might prove workable.

"We're certainly open to discussions about how this could work," she said.

And while legalization has proved a vexing challenge so far in Harrisburg, Kinkead said, "My hope is this will move quickly because this has been something we have been talking about for a very long time."

"We're just hoping to put this out there [to say], 'We listened to what everybody said, and here's actual language to do all the things that you say that we want to do,'" she added. "Hopefully this allows us to actually have a conversation on specific language and stop having the conversation on generalities."

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.