Many human rights were on the ballot this election season, including, but not limited to, Pennsylvanians’ legal right to smoke some weed. As politicians battled for the majority vote, employing tactics from accusatory advertisements to "Darties for Democracy," the issue of marijuana legalization was overshadowed by the salient issues of reproductive rights and high crime rates. But as the new elects are soon to be ushered into office, the future of marijuana legislation hangs in the balance.
Cannabis remains an illegal drug across the state of Pennsylvania, resulting in 20,200 arrests for marijuana possession in 2020, indicating that the enforcement of prohibition persisted even in midst of the COVID–19 pandemic. Arrests continue to be disproportionately concentrated among Black Pennsylvanians, who represent 32% of the arrests yet comprise only 12% of the state’s population. On the city level, marijuana has been decriminalized in Philadelphia since 2014, meaning that residents will not be prosecuted for personal cannabis use, instead receiving a fine, citation, or community service requirement through civil proceedings. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has elected not to pursue small–scale marijuana possession charges in civil court, resulting in a 78% decline in marijuana arrests in Philadelphia between 2013 and 2014. Even with relatively low arrest numbers, Black Philadelphians are detained disproportionately, making up 44% of the city’s population but 76% of its marijuana arrests. Decriminalization isn’t enough to prevent the use of police force and incarceration which directly harms Black and brown communities.
Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman began working to remedy this disparity through the Pennsylvania Marijuna Pardon Project, which offers a one–step online application to be officially pardoned for a non–violent marijuana offense. The project followed Wolf and Fetterman’s tour of all 67 Pennsylvania counties, where they listened to constituents' perspectives on cannabis issues.
While small gains have been made in Harrisburg towards expanding cannabis access, marijuana activist and political organizer Tsehaitu Abye says it’s imperative that politicians communicate with cannabis advocates to better inform cannabis legislation. Abye commends that midterm elects Josh Shapiro and Fetterman have “been actively having those discussions and participating in the work” to understand what the cannabis community needs from its political representatives. The stigmatization of prohibition makes users feel they cannot talk to their elected officials about marijuana use or use political spaces to advocate for cannabis access and legalization. Abye emphasizes that “the election can help you with your relationship with cannabis. And your access to cannabis. Because it’s access to health care.”
In Pennsylvania, cannabis has been recognized as a health care tool since the state passed its Medical Marijuana Act in 2016. The legislation began the PA’s widely successful medical marijuana program, which serves nearly 600,000 Pennsylvanians, providing them with care for 23 qualifying medical conditions ranging from autism to sickle cell anemia. In the past, Harrisburg has recognized the value of cannabis for Pennsylvania residents, and the incoming administration must maintain this understanding as they seek to expand access to marijuana.
Abye is encouraged by the past work of Shapiro and Fetterman in engaging with cannabis advocates, but also expects them to “make sure we have different stakeholders that represent the community of Pennsylvania, in particular considering those who are Black and have been specifically impacted by the war on drugs.” While legalization remains the ultimate goal on the horizon, it’s important to Abye that the cannabis community heals from the damage that has been inflicted on them by criminalizing thousands of people. Not only does this criminalization forcibly remove individuals from their communities, but also stigmatizes them as criminals for the rest of their lives. The “amount of organized power, organized money, and organized people” gives politicians the power to speak for those who have been shamed into silence by prohibition.
Politicians must work toward destigmatizing cannabis use as much as expanding access and fighting for legalization, as stigma hinders users from advocating for themselves and developing a strong community.
Senate elect Fetterman dedicates a page of his website to his political goals surrounding marijuana access; the page itself states Fetterman’s ultimate goal for cannabis policy. He expresses concern that “people who are using this plant legally in their home may still be denied federal employment,” pointing to the government’s systemic discrimination against marijuana users. As Senator, Fetterman will be able to advocate for cannabis access at the federal level, working to change the drug’s status as a schedule 1 substance and expand access across the country. On the campaign trail, Senate candidate Mehmet Oz took to Twitter to criticize his competitor’s promotion of weed legalization, publishing a crude video of a bong emerging from Fetterman’s head.
Fetterman also seeks to “prevent the monopolization of this new industry,” as does Abye through her marketing company, Black Dragon Breakfast Club. Abye limits her clients to BIPOC women interested in cannabis entrepreneurship in an effort to redefine how people of color relate to cannabis, transitioning from a narrative of criminality to one of ownership and agency. The stated mission of BLBC is to change the perception of cannabis and “take control of the hemp and cannabis industry.” Large corporations are already beginning to overtake the state’s budding weed industry, with one company establishing 21 medical marijuana dispensaries across the state. As is the pattern across large corporations, the leaders of these companies tend to be white men, excluding the demographic that Abye works to uplift.
Despite the will for legalization from the state’s governor and Senator elects, many still doubt that legalization is in the near future for Pennsylvania. Although six out of ten Pennsylvania voters support marijuana legalization, the issue still lacks bipartisan support in the state legislature, as some Republican legislators continue to oppose the bill. On the other hand, the election of Shapiro, who has publicly stated his goal of legalizing marijuana and rectifying the harms inflicted by prohibition laws, is promising for the future of cannabis policy.
As governor, Shapiro will have the power to propose legislation supporting the expansion of cannabis access, as well as significant control over the state’s spending on the medical marijuana program and any new initiatives. The incoming administration demonstrates a commitment to an open conversation surrounding cannabis, but this conversation must include a diverse range of cannabis advocates, not just those in control of market shares.