Pennsylvania House lawmakers hold hearing on legalizing recreational marijuana

A crop of cannabis plants grow under artificial lights at a facility in Oregon. (Getty Images)

By Sean Kitchen

November 1, 2023

Cannabis legalization in Pennsylvania is not a matter of if, but when. Adult-use cannabis is currently legal in four neighboring states—New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Maryland, with a fifth on the way if Ohio passes Ballot Initiative 2 on Election Day.

Democrats on the House Health Committee in Harrisburg on Wednesday began the long and drawn out process of legalizing recreational adult-use cannabis for residents throughout the commonwealth by hosting an informational hearing on the topic.

“It provided, I think, a great review and a great starting point as we look to craft a proposal for the state of Pennsylvania,” House Health Committee Chair Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) said in his closing remarks about the significance of Wednesday’s hearing.

The main takeaway from Wednesday’s hearing covered how legal cannabis markets can place downward pressures on illicit markets that are already benefiting from unregulated cannabis sales, as well as the possible societal side effects that come with full legalization.

Cannabis legalization in Pennsylvania is not a matter of if, but when at this point. Adult-use cannabis is currently legal in four neighboring states—New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Maryland, with a fifth on the way if Ohio passes Ballot Initiative 2 on Election Day.

According to Amanda Reiman, the Chief Knowledge Officer at New Frontier, which collects cannabis data throughout the country, roughly 74% of Americans live in a state that has some sort of legalized cannabis use, whether it is for medicinal or recreational purposes.

“160 million people live in adult use states and only about 89 million live in illicit states,” Reiman told the committee. “We are definitely starting to see a shift where most Americans live in a place where they have some sort of access to cannabis.”

If Pennsylvania were to legalize cannabis, cannabis sales through a legalized market would overtake sales from underground markets by 2028, according to estimates from Reiman’s presentation. However, if Pennsylvania does not legalize cannabis, sales on the underground markets would continue to outpace medicinal sales in Pennsylvania beyond 2030.

“As you can see, the only way to trump that illicit market is to continue to allow adult use regulation,” Reiman said in response to those who said they don’t want cannabis legalized.

“People getting products from California. That’s not legal. It’s not legal to ship products across state lines. People buying unregulated products, untested products, people under 21 getting access to products. This all comes from the illicit market.”

At one point during the hearing, State Rep. Tim Twardzik (R-Schuylkill) asked Dr. Kent Varna, a doctor from Penn State Medicine who spoke against cannabis legalization, if using cannabis can lead to the use of harder drugs, to which Varna replied, saying “I think that’s been debunked, representative. Marijuana does not lead to opioid addiction.”

Then at the end of the hearing, Twardzik circled back to his original comments and used Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia that is the epicenter of the raging opioid epidemic, as a reason not to legalize adult-use cannabis in Pennsylvania.

“You look on the internet and you feel sad in your heart that we have the zombies of Kensington who take this fentanyl because its a quick high and now they decided that ‘I’m going to take the tranq drug, a tranquilizer for horses, because it slows down my system and my high lasts longer,’” Twardzik said. “Now, unfortunately your limbs fall off and you turn into terrible people. Everything we can do to stop this we need to do but if we can’t handle this terrible narcotic problem in a place like Kensington, how are we going to open the whole state to more problems?”

State Rep. Daniel Friel Otten (D-Chester), who grew up in the Kensington area, took issue with Twardzik’s comments.

“As someone who is proof that someone who grew up playing wall ball under The El in Kensington can rise to become a state representative and a very functioning member of society,” Friel Otten said in response. “I take issue with the last comments about Kensington.”

After the hearing, Frankel told reporters that there is bipartisan interest in both chambers when it comes to legalizing adult-use cannabis.

“There seems to be bipartisan interest in doing so. Clearly the Senate has Republicans and Democrats who are crafting proposals or have crafted proposals,” he said to the media.

“We’re taking a little more deliberative process to get it right here and looking at a couple different models. And this was really the first opportunity for us to have a hearing, to get an overview of the issues that we need to deal with as we put together a legislative proposal.”

He said he is hopeful that legalization could happen by the end of 2024.



  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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