Weed in Pennsylvania - where does the issue stand?

Pennsylvania lawmakers have aimed to chip away at the state’s firm stance criminalizing recreational marijuana for nearly a decade as it stands increasingly alone amidst shifts to legalization in neighboring New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware and Ohio.

State House representatives Aaron Kaufer (R-Luzerne) and Emily Kinkead (D-Allegheny) pushed to legalize recreational use Monday in bipartisan proposal House Bill 2500, which cites market competition such as new dispensaries in Ohio after its own recent policy change. The bill would let dispensaries sell to recreational customers and create a board to regulate the industry. 

Governor Josh Shapiro says he also seeks to sign a bill legalizing marijuana in July after arguing the move could generate $250 million in annual state revenue during a February budget address. The budget would add a 20% tax on marijuana sales to Pennsylvania’s existing 6% sales tax. 

Although two-thirds of Pennsylvanians support legal marijuana according to a February poll by Franklin and Marshall College, passing a bill before the June 30 budget deadline could prove challenging for Shapiro. 

Shapiro’s plan has faced pushback in Pennsylvania’s republican-controlled senate, as did former governor Tom Wolf’s efforts to expand the Medical Marijuana Act he signed into law in April 2016 and later his campaign for full legalization

As of June 2024, medical cannabis can only be legally purchased at state-approved dispensaries by Pennsylvanians with patient cards who are doctor-certified as having qualifying medical conditions.

However, a three-bill package unanimously passed last June in the Senate Law and Justice Committee would allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for all medical conditions, eliminate the need to annually renew patient cards and let licensed marijuana growers sell directly to patients. 

Pennsylvania’s medical-use laws have changed numerous times since its first dispensary opened in February 2018, such as adding dry leaf and flower to its allowances for pill, oil, vapor, ointment and liquid forms and increasing the sale quantity limit from one month's worth to three. 

The medical marijuana program has proven lucrative for the state, raising $132 million in sales during its first year and a total of $6 billion as of May 2024, according to the Department of Health.

Possession of nonmedical marijuana, however, is a misdemeanor in the state punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine for 30 grams or fewer and a year in jail with $5,000 in fines for more. Notable exceptions Philadelphia and Pittsburgh decriminalized possession of under 30 grams. 

Pennsylvania lawmakers have explored releasing offenders convicted of marijuana possession, with Philadelphia democratic senator Sharif Street joining Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) last July to advocate for a legal marijuana industry led by the Department of Agriculture and expungement of past convictions in Senate Bill 846

Wolf also encouraged thousands of Pennsylvanians with low-level marijuana convictions to apply for "one-time, large-scale pardon effort" in September 2022, near the end of his tenure.

Shapiro recently supported the U.S. Drug Enforcement Association’s move to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule III drug, which would not lift the federal ban on cannabis but would recognize its medical uses and relatively low potential for abuse.