Puff, puff, pass: Why Pennsylvania hasn’t legalized recreational marijuana yet

Marijuana products are displayed at Beyond/Hello, Center City Philadelphia's first medical marijuana dispensary. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

By Ashley Adams

January 30, 2024

Even with a Democratic majority in the state House and a governor who supports it, Pennsylvania remains one of the only states in the region to not have a legal recreational marijuana market.

Doreen Sando Cherenyock was on disability for many years. The Sugarloaf Township resident couldn’t work because of the pain she was dealing with due to her health.

But in February 2018, medical marijuana became available for Pennsylvania patients at dispensaries across the state. Former Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bill legalizing access in 2016, providing long-overdue relief to people with serious medical conditions, like Cherenyock.

Cherenyock obtained her medical marijuana card and has since been able to return to work. 

“Once [marijuana] was legalized medically, that’s what I went to,” Cherenyock said. “Because of that choice, I’ve been able to work now. I use it for pain management. It also has calming effects to help with anxiety and depression.”

To get a medical marijuana card in the commonwealth, residents must first create a profile in the Medical Marijuana Registry, then have an approved physician certify that they suffer from a qualifying medical condition. The cost of the card itself is $50, and must be renewed annually. Patients must also be re-approved annually by a certified physician, a process that ranges in price depending on the complexity of the medical condition. 

Tracy Nagle of York has been a medical marijuana card holder for three years and said it costs her about $175 to renew her card annually. While the state has streamlined the process over the years, Nagle said it’s still a nuisance and costly for many medical users — especially when  cannabis for adult use could just be legalized, like it has been in so many other states.

“Legalizing it recreationally makes it available for everyone,” Nagle said. “By regulating it, we would have a much higher (degree of quality control). It would be a money maker for the state, and it would free up law enforcement. It just makes sense. I don’t understand what the holdup is.”

Even with a Democratic majority in the state House, a governor who included adult-use marijuana in his future budget projections, and a second bipartisan bill introduced in the state Senate last year, Pennsylvania remains one of the only states in the region to not have a legal recreational market.

But there are a few lawmakers, such as Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), who are working to change that and think it’s not a matter of if, but when the state legalizes it.

“I think it’s definitely a possibility to have it legalized in a year or two,” Frankel said. “We are hosting public hearings and listening to medical professionals and those in the industry about how to do this right. We will hopefully have a comprehensive bill by May or June to introduce in the House.”

Where is it legal?

Currently, 24 states have legalized recreational marijuana, either by ballot measure or by legislative action. Ohio was the most recent state to legalize it, with voters passing a ballot measure just last year. The law took effect on Dec. 7, though dispensaries will not be able to sell recreational marijuana until late 2024.

Dispensaries are open for business in both New Jersey and New York, though the Garden State’s road to licensing stores to sell recreational marijuana ran much more smoothly than the Gotham State’s.

To the south, Delaware and Maryland’s state legislatures recently passed measures to begin regulating, licensing and taxing for marijuana sales. Maryland opened its legal recreational dispensaries in July 2023 and Delaware hopes to have their adult-use marketplace up and running by the end of this year.

“Pennsylvania is a little late to the game in this, there is no doubt about it,” Frankel said. “And that also presents the issue of inevitability. It’s going to happen. Even if not on the state level, but eventually the federal level.

“We are surrounded by it. At least our urban centers are going to have access to it, so we might as well be able to reap the benefits and make sure the products are safe. It’s almost silly to think we can be the holdout in a sea of legalized states.”

Why hasn’t Pennsylvania legalized it yet?

While Frankel said he understands that many Pennsylvanians are calling for the legalization of recreational marijuana, it’s easier said than done.

There are a lot of factors to consider, Frankel said, such as how to successfully regulate the marketplace, how to structure licenses for dispensaries, how to package the material, how to keep it out of the hands of minors, how to integrate it with the current medical marketplace, and much more.

“We need to be able to establish a solid business foundation for the adult-use marketplace to ensure the state has a good model in place,” Frankel said. “We have to find a way for this business to work and I think that is one of the issues that is missed by some of my colleagues when they look at how to work through this and find a good place for us.”

As the chair of the House Health Committee, Frankel held a hearing in November that covered how legal marijuana markets can place downward pressures on illicit markets that are already benefiting from unregulated sales, as well as the possible societal side effects that come with full legalization. 

Frankel said more public hearings are scheduled for the near future that will include health professionals, regulators from other states, and others in the industry to discuss how to successfully implement a recreational marketplace in Pennsylvania.

“We have talked to the regulator in Maryland,” Frankel said. “We are looking at that model and we are thinking that it may be, at this point, one of, if not the most successful model of the states that have rolled it out. And we’ve taken a look at states that have not been so successful such as New York. There is a kind of a wild west climate in New York that was created there. We want to avoid that. So we really want to be thoughtful in the way we approach this and to try and get it right.”

In the state Senate, Sens. Daniel Laughlin (R-Erie) and Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) introduced Senate Bill 846 in May to legalize adult-use marijuana. They first introduced the bipartisan bill in 2021 but it never made it out of committee. SB 846 is currently sitting in the Law and Justice Committee.

On a positive note, Frankel said, the negative stigma associated with the legalization of recreational marijuana has subsided a bit, allowing for more conversations to take place about how to do it right in the commonwealth.

“My Republican colleagues in the House and on the Health Committee are not enthusiastic to say the least but they at least recognize that sooner or later this is inevitable and if it’s going to be done then it ought to be done right,” Frankel said. “If it’s going to happen they will help put together a good piece of legislation that addresses all these issues.”

The next step, Frankel said, will be getting the support from both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate to get a bill passed.

For Pennsylvanians like Cherenyock, though, it should be a no brainer.

“There are so many people out there who could benefit from it, but can’t afford to either get the card or buy the regulated product,” Cherenyrock said. “There are so many people that are killed by drunk drivers and there are so many severe health tragedies from alcohol. It makes zero sense to me that you would legalize alcohol and not marijuana.”


  • Ashley Adams

    In her 16 years in the communications industry, Ashley Adams has worn many hats, including news reporter, public relations writer, marketing specialist, copy editor and technical writer. Ashley grew up in Berks County and has since returned to her roots to raise her three children.

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