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Governor Shapiro Formally Calls for Pennsylvania Cannabis Legalization in Annual Budget Address
Wednesday, February 14, 2024

The prospect of legalizing recreational cannabis in Pennsylvania, which long seemed elusive, might be on the brink of change following Gov. Josh Shapiro's budget address on Feb. 6, 2024. There Shapiro made a strong case for the legalization of recreational cannabis, emphasizing that Pennsylvania is one of the few states in the region without legal recreational cannabis (the other is West Virginia), and is consequently missing out on potential revenue exceeding $250 million. Shapiro proposed a 20% tax on recreational cannabis sales, estimating this could generate $14.8 million in revenue for Pennsylvania in the first year, with projected increases to $76 million in the second year, $160 million in the third, and $230 million by the fourth year, according to officials from the Shapiro administration.

Shapiro’s explicit endorsement has prompted key Republican leaders in the state to recognize the significant revenue Pennsylvania is forfeiting by not legalizing recreational cannabis. This acknowledgment was notably echoed by State Senate Majority Joe Pittman (R-Indiana County), who emphasized the importance of understanding the governor's perspective, signaling a growing openness among Pennsylvania Republicans to the idea of legalization. However, hesitancy remains among some Republicans, including Majority Leader Pittman, who believe federal rescheduling of cannabis is a necessary precondition for state-level legalization, a move the federal government appears increasingly inclined to consider.

For Shapiro, the challenge lies in garnering support from the Republican-controlled State Senate. To date, only two Republican State Senators, Mike Regan (R-York) and Dan Laughlin (R-Erie), have publicly supported the legalization of recreational cannabis. Both Regan and Laughlin have proposed major overhauls to attitudes regarding cannabis in Pennsylvania. On one hand, Regan proposed a major expansion of the medical cannabis program to increase eligibility of the program. On the other hand, Laughlin co-authored legislation with Senator Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) to legalize recreational cannabis. I covered the nuances of the Street and Laughlin legislation in my various blog posts such as “A New Sheriff in Town.”

Historically, gubernatorial promises of reform on significant issues have led to tangible changes, as demonstrated by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy's successful push for reforms in his state’s outdated liquor licensing system. These were adopted and enacted by the state legislature in January 2024. This precedent offers hope that a similar outcome could be achieved in Pennsylvania, potentially leading to the legalization of recreational cannabis.

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