A Pennsylvania House subcommittee met Thursday to explore how potential cannabis legislation could advance equity and social justice in the face of the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs on minority communities.

“A clear priority that you heard yesterday at our subcommittee meeting deals with the issues of social equity and restorative justice, particularly for those communities that were most disadvantaged by the criminal justice system,” said  Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), chair of the House Health Committee subcommittee on health care.

On Friday morning, House Democrats, who hold a single-vote majority and therefore control what bills come to the floor, held their first full caucus meeting to begin discussions of what a bill aimed at legalizing marijuana might look like.

“My hope and expectation is that we will have a bill that is informed by the hearings that we’ve had in the health committee – in our subcommittee – in the coming few months,” Frankel told the Capital-Star “There may be a member or two that may have an issue with that, but I think that there is a clear, overwhelming consensus among the Democratic caucus.”

Gov. Josh Shapiro has expressed support for legalizing marijuana in Pennsylvania, and even included potential revenue from a tax on the substance in his latest budget. In the Senate, a legalization bill has been put forward by Republican Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie), with a handful of Democratic sponsors. An identical bill was introduced in the House Tuesday by Democrat Rep. Amen Brown (D-Philadelphia) with all Democratic sponsors.

Among those who testified Thursday was Tahir Johnson, 40, a New Jersey native who was one of the first to receive a license to open a recreational cannabis dispensary in his state. Prior to legalization, Johnson had been arrested on cannabis-related charges three times.

“Seeing something that has caused harm to me and my family — to so many people I know — and to now be building a business on the back of that has been amazing,” Johnson told the Capital-Star. “Just doing something like this in my community, knowing that it’s making people proud, knowing that I’m making an example as one of the first people to get a license and be doing this is amazing.”

Johnson qualified for what’s called “social equity status” when he applied to open a dispensary in New Jersey. That status is offered to minority business owners or people who had previously been charged with cannabis-related offenses, and gives their applications priority.

The goal of social equity status is to ensure that people and communities most impacted by the war on drugs get  ample opportunity to enter the new business sector on the ground floor. Black Americans, like Johnson, are much more likely to be arrested for cannabis-related crimes than whites, numerous studies have demonstrated.

But as Johnson and others testified, social equity programs like New Jersey’s have not always had their intended effect. Johnson said he had to jump through many hoops to attain funding, and the regulatory process for dispensaries is onerous. His license was approved two years ago, and his dispensary still hasn’t opened.

Laury Lucien, the owner of a marijuana business in Massachusetts and a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston, told the committee Pennsylvania should learn from her state’s mistakes.

While Massachusetts has a social equity program similar to New Jersey’s, many would-be business owners who qualified for it lacked the access to funding and relevant business experience when compared to venture capital investors and large corporations, many of which already operate dispensaries in states where it is legal. Moreover, many banks are hesitant to offer loans to businesses selling a product that’s still illegal federally.

And in Massachusetts, Lucien said, would-be business owners are required to have real estate for their dispensaries throughout the entire application process, which can take years.

Due largely to these hurdles, Lucien said, Massachusetts’ marijuana business is still predominantly white

She suggested not allowing any non-equity businesses to open until funding is made available for equity candidates. She also recommended laws barring the sale of social equity licenses to non-equity candidates for a period of time after the initial legalization to prevent monopolistic businesses from buying them up.

Johnson advocated for a policy implemented in New Jersey, allowing equity candidates to receive conditional licenses before meeting certain funding barriers, making it easier to find investors.

“Oftentimes, when we’re engaging in these conversations, we feel as if we’re engaging in charitable work, but this is not what we’re doing,” Lucien told the committee. “It’s reparative justice to repair the wrongs that were committed in the enforcement of these marijuana laws that disproportionately impacted certain communities and certain people”

Lawmakers on the committee expressed skepticism that any legislation could have the desired effect on ensuring equity in the cannabis industry, given the difficulties in other states.

“We’ve heard from every state, ‘don’t make the mistakes we’ve had,’ but it seems like every state makes some mistakes,” Rep. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin) told the committee. “I don’t see a way out of it.”

Schemel and other Republicans on the subcommittee also unanimously expressed concern about the public health impacts of legalizing cannabis.

Retired Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen, who is now of counsel at the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a subsidiary of the pro-life national think tank Family Research Council — deemed a “hate group” by Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBTQ stances — spoke to these concerns at the committee meeting.

“Increased use of cannabis has detrimental effects, not only on our young people, but on our society as a whole,” Allen told the committee. “So why would we promote such an industry and call it social equity?”

But legalization proponents, including members of the subcommittee, disagree.

“The fact of the matter is that we have an environment where there is a vibrant, illicit marketplace,” Frankel told the committee. Not only would legalization ensure that all marijuana products are regulated, he added, but it would end the discriminatory enforcement of cannabis-related criminal penalties.

“For many of us, including on this panel, I think on a bipartisan basis, the restorative justice, social justice piece, decriminalization has been an important aspect of this conversation,” Frankel said.

The subcommittee on healthcare will meet again on April 25.