Pennsylvania’s House Health committee hosted an informational hearing today on social equity in legalizing recreational cannabis.

The 2 1/2 hour hearing established that many states that have fully legalized weed have shaped regulations to acknowledge past impacts of the drug being illegal.

The Case for Social Equity

In Pennsylvania, black citizens are 4-5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana as Caucasian citizens, according to state police data from 2021. The reasons for the disparity are myriad.

Retired Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen, who sat on the bench for criminal and juvenile cases in Pittsburgh for 17 years, gave testimony today on how law enforcement will focus on street dealers in poorer neighborhoods.

“If that’s where your focus is, instead of as opposed to drugs that may be distributed in more sophisticated manner, in more affluent communities, then that’s where you’re going to have more prosecution,” said Allen. “There’s just as much drug use and distributing in more affluent communities as there are in poorer communities.”

“I have also seen the difference between how simple possession is treated through some of our suburban district justices or suburban police forces versus the city,” said Allen.

Advocates of social equity policy in cannabis legalization point to decades of increased policing— and the harm that comes to families and individuals as a result— as cause to consider the policies.

How Social Equity is Included

“Only thing I ever got in trouble for was weed.”

Tahir Johnson was one of the testifiers in today’s hearing.

“Seeing something that’s caused harm to me and my family, so many people I know, to now be building a business on the back of that is amazing,” said Johnson

The New Jersey native is one of the first people in Trenton, NJ to have gotten a social equity license to start his cannabis business. Pennsylvania lawmakers are learning how and if they want to implement similar regulations in the commonwealth.

If, weed is ever fully legalized.

Social equity policy often takes on 3 forms: updating current law and expunging past marijuana criminal records. Investing tax revenue from cannabis sales into communities impacted by the drug. And setting aside business licenses for impacted minorities.

“Those communities that have been harmed,” said Johnson, “We’re building a billion dollar industry. So it’s just as important to give back to those people.”

Each approach to social equity requires nuanced choices.

Should only weed users get expunged records? Or should some sellers get a second chance? And how should laws be drafted going forward to criminalize those who sell cannabis without proper licensing?

Dr. William Garriot of Drake University— a professor of anthropology towards law, politics, and society— noted in testimony that some states set a time period for expungement. The period will trace back for several decades then end on the day cannabis is legalized. Garriot also recommended that more nuanced cases— like where possession is not the only charge— be reviewed by boards that have community representation on them.

Looking at revenue, which community programs should receive extra funding?

“Where do we target that revenue? Do we target it in rehab?” asked Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren), the minority chair for the House Health Committee.

And finally, when it comes to forging paths for minorities to step into the industry side of cannabis, should government efforts be focused on education? Waiving license fees? Should business owners apply for a social equity license, or social equity status?

Testifiers noted that licenses and statuses can sometimes be sold— which in other states has resulted in an industry still run by larger corporations that push out smaller minority owned businesses.

“In other states that have testified, [they] say ‘in the end corporations end up owning all these. And a few minority individuals got wealthy selling them to corporations, but there was really no minority impact,” said Rep. Paul Schemel (R-Franklin) during the hearing.

Cherron Perry-Thomas, co-founder of the Diasporic Alliance for Cannabis Opportunities (DACO), did suggest cooperatives as one solution to keeping equity licenses in members of targeted communities.

The senior cannabis business manager for the city of Boston, Shekia Scott, also laid out the value of having equity goals in mind before setting up any programs. Those goals then helping to guide how regulations are crafted.

One reason that store ownership plays into equity is accessibility. Legalizing weed can only pull people out of illicit markets into safe, controlled environments if users feel welcome in those environments.

Johnson shared how he and his mother visited a cannabis shop earlier this week.

While representatives found consensus on the idea of social equity policies…

“For any industry, we should be making sure that minorities have the opportunity to be those business owners as well as any other person in our state,” said Rapp.

Questions remained on how to best implement strategies;

“When it comes to [license] equity I don’t know that there is a solution because I have yet to hear one,” said Schemel.

Underlying the social equity conversation is hesitation from multiple Pennsylvania lawmakers to legalize at all.

“I’m still opposed to legalization because of the negative impacts,” said Rapp.“This hearing didn’t really address much of health issues and the impact of what legalization— negative impact in my opinion— has on children, adolescents, on women who are pregnant. Research has said this puts pregnant mothers and their babies at risk before and after birth.”

Judge Allen testified against legalization, linking marijuana to all the harms that drug addictions cause families and communities.

“Should we ignore the broken homes and traumatized neglected children who end up in the foster care system because of drug addiction?” asked Allen. “We should not be promoting an industry who’s very existence depends on drug dependency. That’s wrong. and you can’t make it right.”

In turn, many lawmakers counteract that legalization is a solution to safety.

“Let’s not pretend that Pennsylvanians aren’t using cannabis recreationaly. They are,” said Senator Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia). The Senator has a family legacy of advocating for marijuana legalization in the Pennsylvania legislature.

“But now they are using it through an illicit market that funds illegal activity that drives a criminal enterprise. If we were to shift it to an adult use law, it could be labeled,” said Street. “We would get tax revenue. We would understand what’s being used. And the consumer would know what they are getting.”