Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus Advocate For Equity In Cannabis Legalization

While Pennsylvania considers whether or not to legalize cannabis, members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus (PLBC) are pushing for equity provisions to be integrated into the legislation if it does come to pass. 

During a news conference at the Capitol rotunda in Harrisburg on Tuesday, caucus members called for comprehensive measures to address past injustices and promote fair opportunities in the burgeoning cannabis industry.

At the forefront of these demands is the call for expungements for individuals with cannabis-related criminal records, pathways to resentencing, the return of assets seized during cannabis-related arrests, and compensation for those who have been incarcerated under outdated marijuana possession laws. 

“The Legislative Black Caucus will not accept the advancement of an adult-use program that still holds incarcerated individuals that have previously been convicted for cannabis activity,” Democratic Rep. Napoleon Nelson said.  Nelson currently serves as the caucus’ chair, who represents parts of Montgomery, including Cheltenham, Elkins Park, and Jenkintown.

Nelson emphasized the need for an Office of Social Equity, which would manage a Cannabis Development Fund. This fund would be supported by state tax revenue from legalized cannabis, a portion of licensing fees, and an initial appropriation from the state. It would provide grants and low-interest loans to help individuals, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to break into the industry.

Other state representatives echoed Nelson’s sentiments, advocating for a significant portion of licenses issued to cultivators, producers, dispensaries, and other cannabis businesses to go to social equity licensees. This could include people who were previously charged with cannabis offenses or those living in communities with high rates of cannabis convictions.

Philadelphia State Sen. Sharif Street highlighted the need for inclusivity within the industry, stating, “We want to make sure those folks can benefit from a legal cannabis market…get licenses, be grower-processors, but to also own dispensaries,” Sharif said. 

Rep. Amen Brown said: “It’s about righting historical wrongs and addressing social inequities,” Brown said. Rep. Chris Rabb pointed out the current lack of Black ownership in the state’s existing dispensaries, underlining the need for change.

Furthermore, Rep. Lindsay Powell of Allegheny County also spoke in favor of the proposed equity measures, noting that Pennsylvania ranks 14th in the racial equity gap. “We know that we have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs,” Powell said. “By ensuring that we are focusing on criminal justice, making sure that those disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated for cannabis are being restored, making sure that we are centering social equity so that businesses are able to flourish and be created by these new revenue funds and that we can ensure that we have Black business owners that are able to capture shares of this market.”

Meredith Buettner, executive director of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition, also supported the proposed equity measures. “Our coalition stands to work with all these folks behind me in ensuring their priorities are included in a lot of the existing legislation that’s already on the table. We have vehicles that are ready to go – the voices of the legislative Black caucus being added to those vehicles will make them unstoppable,” Buettner said.

In April, the House Subcommittee on Health Care held a hearing that encouraged social equity measures, including expungement, to be part of the legislation. A 2022 CBS News poll found that 66% of registered voters in the Commonwealth supported legalizing marijuana.

Currently, every state that borders Pennsylvania, except for West Virginia, has legalized cannabis. Earlier this year, Governor Shapiro told CBS News Pittsburgh that legalizing cannabis could generate $250 million in tax revenue for the state.

As the 2023-24 legislative session draws to a close, thirteen bills and resolutions related to cannabis have been introduced. The advocacy of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus adds a powerful voice to the ongoing discussions, striving to ensure that the path to legalization is equitable and just for all Pennsylvanians.

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