On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that his new lieutenant governor, John Fetterman, will facilitate a statewide conversation on legalizing marijuana for recreational use in Pennsylvania by holding a series of town hall-style sessions.
But the idea of legalizing marijuana is one that most of Lancaster County’s state legislators oppose, at least at this point.
And Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman answered LNP’s request for comment with a lengthy statement, which can be read in full at the bottom of this story.
“Making a dangerous drug legal does not make it any less dangerous," he wrote, saying there are benefits “to not being on the cutting edge of legalization and waiting for more data — and at least one long-term study of the use of the high-level-THC marijuana sold today.”
He also wrote that he does not believe people should be in jail for possessing marijuana, and noted that the county has a drug diversion program at the district court level.
Former Lancaster County resident Les Stark, executive director of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition, said legalization won’t happen in Pennsylvania until it gets some Republican support, and right now he’s not aware of any.
But, he said, “I think when Republican legislators understand that many of their own constituents agree with this, they’re going to come around.”
“Conversations like this are an important part of how democracy is exercised in the United States of America,” he said.
In 2016, Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana bill passed the House 149 to 46, and the Senate 42 to 7. But most of Lancaster County’s legislators voted against it, with the only yes votes coming from Rep. Mike Sturla, who is the delegation’s only Democrat, and Reps. Jim Cox and Mark Gillen, whose districts are mostly in Berks County.
LNP asked the legislators for comment Friday on legalizing recreational marijuana, and those who responded were mostly in line with their previous votes.
Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin issued a joint statement saying they think Senate approval is unlikely, “especially considering that some ranking members have already expressed ardent opposition.”
The senators wrote that they do not support legalization at this time, “as we believe that the social, health, and public safety costs associated with such policies outweigh any perceived benefit of legalization.”
“The priorities of the House Republican Caucus do not include legalizing federally prohibited drugs,” House Republican Leader Rep. Bryan Cutler wrote. “They do include addressing the opioid epidemic and ensuring there is no abuse of the medical marijuana program which is still in its infancy in this state.”
Sturla said the House Democratic Policy Committee, which he chairs, plans to hold hearings this year on legalizing recreational marijuana, and he considers it essential to learn about what happened in states that have already legalized the drug.
Sturla said he thinks the statewide discussion Wolf said Fetterman will facilitate is worth having, and that he generally and cautiously favors legalization.
“I think we have a whole lot of people who are in the criminal system and incarcerated for nonviolent crimes related to marijuana,” he said.
Rep. David Zimmerman wrote, “I am not in favor of putting more drugs on the streets of Pennsylvania.”
Rep. Keith Greiner wrote that he expects a spirited debate and is not in favor of legalization, noting that he thinks the focus needs to be on more important issues such as job creation and economic development.
Rep. Gillen wrote that he voted in support "of a highly regulated medical marijuana law" but is "loath to advance any legislation that creates additional driving hazards" and "will remain vigilant to analyze all bills that address the legalization of recreational marijuana."
The House, he wrote, "is less likely to legalize recreational marijuana and more likely to reduce criminal penalties."
Representatives from two treatment providers in Lancaster County also advocated caution.
Compass Mark is a nonprofit focused on preventing addiction that has offices in Lancaster and Lebanon counties. Eric S. Kennel is its executive director, and Amy Sechrist is a certified prevention specialist.
In joint written comments, they said research shows that increased access to any substance like marijuana equals increased use for both teens and adults, and more people with negative consequences from that use.
“We need to be clear about our motivations and about our goals as a state,” they wrote. “Our goals need to shift from rationalizing to planning. If we’re going to do this, let’s use every available bit of data and advice from other states and create policies, procedures and systems to limit the harm and address the associated costs through greater investment in prevention, treatment, and recovery services.”
They also noted that legalization and decriminalization “are two entirely separate issues.”
Peter Schorr is founder and CEO of treatment provider Retreat at Lancaster County.
“It’s vital to hear from people at a grassroots level to enact meaningful policies that reflect public consensus,” he wrote.
Schorr said he sees a case to be made for decriminalization from the judicial perspective, but that “the jury is still out on the dangers of recreational marijuana use.”
“We don’t,” he wrote, “want to expose our communities to something that could foster more detrimental problems later on.”
At least two municipalities in the county — Lancaster city since September, and Millersville Borough since 2015 — have ordinances that give police leeway to treat possession of small amounts of marijuana more leniently than state law does. And Manor Township is considering one.
Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace said in an email Friday that she believes the statewide conversation needs to happen.
“Regardless of the issue, state law pre-empts local ordinance,” she wrote, noting that Lancaster’s ordinance doesn’t pertain to legalization.
J. Ryan Strohecker, Manor Township manager, wrote that it has had no conversations on legalizing marijuana and that subject “is not on our radar screen.”
This story was updated for clarity at 12:51 p.m. Jan. 26,2019.