State politics: Pot reforms pass, but not all are on board | News, Sports, Jobs


FILE – A cyclist rides past the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on March 22, 2021. A scramble to collect enough signatures over just a week and a half to make it onto the primary ballot began over the weekend, kicking off what is certain to be a year of political change in the Pennsylvania Legislature. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

While Pennsylvania inches toward more permissive marijuana laws, skeptical lawmakers and their allies are putting up a fight against further legalization.

This week, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to protect legitimate marijuana businesses from state banking rules that could keep them in a state of legal limbo. The bill, introduced by Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, and Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, allows financial and insurance institutions to provide services to marijuana businesses without fear of state penalties.

It passed 46-3, with overwhelming support from both parties.

“Banking this cash safely in Pennsylvania will grow our economy and lower costs for medical cannabis consumers,” DiSanto said in a news release.

Other lawmakers are moving to open more drug forms for patients using medical marijuana. In a memo to colleagues last week, Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, said he plans to propose a bill allowing dispensaries to sell so-called edibles — marijuana in food form.

Under existing rules, Laughlin said, patients can try to mix some marijuana forms into food at home, but the process can be complex and leave patients with too much or too little of the drug.

“Pennsylvania’s patients should be able to buy edible medical cannabis that is safe, uniform, and securely packaged and labeled, just as they do in 25 other states that have legalized medical cannabis,” Laughlin told colleagues.

Other efforts, including one by Laughlin and Street to let medical marijuana patients grow their own plants, haven’t yet made it to a committee vote.

While medical marijuana has become commonly accepted in Pennsylvania’s political culture since its legalization in 2016, legal recreational use remains controversial. Despite reduced enforcement in some cities, support from the governor’s office and widespread approval in opinion polls, the drug remains firmly illegal for recreational use in the Keystone State.

The issue isn’t strictly partisan: Some GOP lawmakers have moved to support legal or decriminalized use, including in a bipartisan effort last year. But so far, none of their efforts have passed either chamber of the General Assembly.

The issue has been hashed out in a series of prominent committee hearings in Harrisburg. Earlier this year, lawmakers held three hearings to address regulatory and financial questions surrounding legalization.

Some lawmakers, however, remain openly opposed — and they have allies throughout the state.

This week, Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, chaired a hearing on the effects legalization could have on children and teens. Featuring law enforcement officials and academics, the hearing pointed to concerns that legal marijuana could mean the drug ends up in children’s hands.

“Pennsylvania has already legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes,” Ward said, “but this would be a step in the wrong direction for the commonwealth.”

Senate races get bitter and pricey

The state’s eye-poppingly expensive Senate primaries continue apace, with individual candidates’ spending already breaking well past $10 million in recent days — and more than a month to go. Wealthy candidates and their allied political action committees are pumping millions into TV ads, particularly in the bitter fight for the GOP Senate nomination.

One hopeful in that race, physician Mehmet Oz, got a boost this week with a coveted endorsement from former president Donald Trump. But he continues to face attacks from hedge fund manager David McCormick and is sparring with several other candidates including Jeff Bartos and Kathy Barnette.

Recent polls have shown the GOP race remains open. Late last month, an Emerson College poll found nearly half of GOP voters were undecided; another poll of likely voters early this month found nearly one-third remained unsure.

A Franklin & Marshall College poll released this week found more than 40 percent of Republicans are undecided, and two in three with a preferred choice said they would be willing to change their minds.

The Democratic side has been marked by increasingly harsh exchanges between Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17th District. Lamb’s allies have attacked from the right, with one controversial TV ad falsely labeling Fetterman a “self-described democratic socialist.”

Bill would ban ballot boxes

Pennsylvania voters could soon lose access to the ballot drop boxes that appeared across the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the latest move to chip away at the state’s pre-November 2020 election reforms.

A bill by Sen. Cris Dush, R-Cameron, to do away with the boxes passed a 29-20 party-line vote in the Senate on Wednesday, paving the way for a House debate. The bill would require mail-in ballots not sent via the U.S. Postal Service to be dropped directly at a county election office, reducing the number of locations available to remote voters.

GOP lawmakers have moved repeatedly to eliminate provisions of the sweeping pandemic-era election reform that allowed open mail-in voting. After Trump lost the election to President Joe Biden and claimed he had been the victim of fraud, supporters moved to reverse those laws across the country — although they didn’t always cite Trump’s reasoning.



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