Pennsylvania lawmakers attempting to exercise due diligence on crafting adult-use cannabis legislation have taken a one-sided approach, according to one legislator.

The state’s Senate Law & Justice Committee held a series of three hearings, each extending beyond two hours, when body members heard from a mixture of testifiers, including law enforcement officials during a Feb. 7 hearing; and individuals who played active roles in legalization efforts in other states during a Feb. 28 hearing.

In their concluding hearing held March 14, committee members heard from industry professionals and patient advocates with connections to Pennsylvania’s existing medical cannabis program.

Sen. Mike Regan, the committee’s chair and a former law enforcement officer who plans to introduce an adult-use bill in the General Assembly, said during the final session that it was important to hear from the medical cannabis regulatory oversight personnel in the state Department of Health.

“We’re fortunate to already have an established medical marijuana program in Pennsylvania, which has laid the basic groundwork for licensing, growing, manufacturing and selling cannabis through a state regulated system,” he said. “As we will hear today, our medical program is not without its faults. I look forward to learning about this so that we can help Pennsylvania’s 600,000 patients and caregivers while also formulating an oversight structure for adult-use marijuana that will be regarded for its desire and ability to work with the industry and advocate for its success.”

But at the conclusion of Monday’s hearing, Sen. Judy Ward called the hearings one-sided.

She said some of the stakeholders who were left out include drug and alcohol professionals, chiefs of police, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, and Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). 

Specifically, SAM is a prohibitionist organization that aims to create policies that decrease cannabis use. In 2013, SAM was co-founded by Kevin Sabet, a former three-time adviser to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“The thought of adult-use cannabis in the commonwealth is a huge policy shift and a process that needs thorough vetting,” Ward said. “This is an extremely complicated issue with many facets, and it deserves much discussion. We began the journey of medical marijuana in 2016, and we continue to work on that process even today. These hearings have been extensive, and I commend the chairman and his staff, but it’s only presented us one side of the argument.”

Ward added that she plans to use the Senate Aging & Youth Committee, which she chairs, to provide greater context to legalization through additional stakeholder testimonies. She encouraged other committee chairs to do the same.

Regan said written testimonies were not restricted to any certain group or groups, and that those would be made available to committee members.

Earlier in the March 14 hearing, Meredith Buettner, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition, said Pennsylvania is well-positioned to build a well-regulated cannabis program for adult use that should be grounded in the principles of safety, security and economic development.

PCC is a cannabis trade association that represents 75% of the medical cannabis operators in the state, she said.

“If the commonwealth has not developed and implemented its own adult-use program by the time cannabis is federally legal, we run the risk of having the federal government intervene and set up a program for us,” Buettner said. “Creating a comprehensive, regulated adult-use market based in best practices is imperative to a successful program.”

Buettner outlined three “critical” best practices when designing the regulating body for such a program:

The regulating entity must be empowered to oversee both a medical and adult-use program. Having two programs sit under separate entities makes it nearly impossible for a medical program to survive, she said. The regulating body should be a newly formed commission or board dedicated solely to administering the programs. That body must include staff who understand licensing, science, compliance and security, she said. The regulating body should create and maintain consistent and constructive feedback and information from stakeholders. The best-run programs in the country engage in frequent stakeholder feedback meetings, advisory group meetings and regulatory feedback sessions, she said.

Buettner added, “The PCC strongly recommends making this process part of the statutory framework for the new program so that there are no misunderstandings regarding the body’s responsibility to its stakeholder communities.”