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What's stopping legal cannabis in Pa.

The Investigator

April 1, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Shifting gears, Capitol influence, pot blockers, water rescue, raced to death, police probe, $2.19 felony, campaign controversy, and trauma cleaning.
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Pennsylvania will open COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 or older starting April 19, Jamie Martines reports for Spotlight PA, greatly accelerating the state's rollout after a haphazard start.

Two remaining priority groups will go first, with people in Phase 1B eligible starting April 5 and those in Phase 1C starting April 12. Non-Philly residents can find their grouping here

Food and agriculture workers, grocery store workers, law enforcement, firefighters, people over 65, and those with serious medical conditions are all eligible now. 

For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.

Philadelphia, which has a vaccine program separate from the state's, says it won't follow the Wolf administration's lead and still plans to open eligibility up to all adults on May 1.

The rapid expansion of the statewide pool comes weeks ahead of President Joe Biden's May 1 deadline. But, as Martines detailed, it comes after months of a checkered state rollout that saw mixed results, hefty criticism of the Wolf administration, and an urgent race to meet necessary benchmarks

Also this week, Angela Couloumbis and Brad Bumstead report former employees of a Harrisburg lobbyist are now working for the state Senate’s Republican majority, piquing concerns about the level of influence the "cozy" arrangement might afford

Two former employees of Ray Zaborney, whose companies help elect public officials and then lobby them once they're in office, are now in prominent roles with Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman's office and the influential Pennsylvania Senate Republican Campaign Committee, respectively. 

“It’s cozy. It’s integrated,” said Christopher Borick, political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. 

Zaborney rejects any notion that having former employees in key policy and fundraising positions would give his businesses or clients an advantage. But critics say the close relationships showcase the tangled nexus between politics, policy, and campaign fundraising, perpetuated by the state’s weak lobbying and campaign disclosure rules, and little appetite among the legislative majority to take up reforms.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

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“I don’t know how we shift doses and make decisions like that without knowing where the demand is.”

—Sen. Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny) on lingering blindspots ahead of the state's vast vaccine expansion

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, find where to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and sign up for alerts for your county

» Processed Pa. unemployment claims in the past year? Tell us about it.

What’s stopping Pennsylvania from legalizing cannabis? 

New Jersey. New York. Virginia.

One by one, Pennsylvania’s neighbors are moving to legalize recreational cannabis for adults. There’s majority support for doing the same thing here: A March poll from Franklin & Marshall College showed 59% support among registered voters for legalization.

And after years of saying he wouldn’t endorse such a move, Gov. Tom Wolf changed his position in 2019 and has committed to signing a bill if it reaches his desk.

But in order for that to happen, the idea would need to gain backing among the Republican lawmakers who control both the state House and Senate.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) opposed medical cannabis when it passed in 2016 and said in 2019 that legalization wasn’t the “right move in helping the thousands of Pennsylvanians who are battling drug addiction.” More recently his chief of staff told PennLive it wasn’t a priority.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) in 2018 called the idea “reckless and irresponsible,” though last fall he signaled the chamber was open to vetting a proposal — but not at that time

Democrats in the chamber, as they have in past sessions, are still pushing for legalization, but with one major difference this spring — a Republican sponsor.

That lawmaker is Sen. Dan Laughlin of Erie County. When asked by Spotlight PA why he thinks Pennsylvania hasn’t moved toward legalization, he responded that many of his fellow Republicans represent districts that don’t support recreational cannabis. 

“So, you know, I don't hold it against any fellow Republicans for not wanting to just jump out of the gate and cosponsor the bill, because for the most part I think they're trying to represent their districts,” he said. “Anyone can see that it's coming, it's just a matter of how soon it gets here.”

The issue is simple to Tsehaitu Abye, a cannabis entrepreneur and founder of Philadelphia’s Black Dragon Breakfast Club, a cannabis marketing firm: Once the financial scales tip in favor of legalization — rather than the industries that oppose it —  it will happen. 

Laughlin said revenue is at the “bottom of my list” of good reasons to support legalization, but there is a significant amount of money at stake: up to $581 million a year in revenue, per a 2018 auditor general report. 

At the moment, Laughlin’s bill — which he co-introduced with Sen. Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) — is awaiting a committee assignment. Once that happens, Laughlin said he and Street plan to hold public hearings.

He emphasized that “public sentiment” is ultimately the reason why proposals become unstuck in the legislature. 

Tauhid Chappell, a cannabis patient, journalist, and founder of the CannAtlantic Cannabis Conference, said Republican control is the main factor preventing legalization.

“But we also need way more public advocacy particularly from Black and brown-led organizations that need to lead all conversations around equity, access, and reparations as it pertains to legalizing the plant and ensuring tax revenues are earmarked and directly invested in communities that have been directly harmed by over policing, divestment, and poverty,” he said by email. 

A longer version of this story will appear Friday on spotlightpa.org.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


WATER BILL: There is a push to privatize Chester's water authority, but not to rescue the well-run and award-winning system. Instead, it's an attempt to rescue the municipality's beleaguered finances, a move made possible by special-interest legislation. The American Prospect calls it a cautionary tale about "how private companies prime the pump in statehouses to capture public goods like water."

LONG RUN: State officials have tallied more than 1,400 racehorse deaths in Pennsylvania since 2010 — half at a single track that's part of Pennsylvania’s largest casino. The doping of horses, dubbed "pharmaceutical warfare" by a former owner, is a key reason why. The Inquirer reports on how reforms have failed and what propping up the state's horse-racing industry is costing taxpayers

NO CHARGES: There will be no charges for the Stroudsburg state troopers who fatally shot a man in the throes of a mental health crisis last year. Monroe County authorities say an investigation found the shooting of 19-year-old Christian Hall was a “classic suicide by cop scenario” and justified, the Pocono Record reports. Civil rights attorneys say the probe was flawed and a federal lawsuit is coming.

THREE STRIKES: Seventy-year-old Blaine Hildebrand of Cambria County faces seven years in prison for the theft of a $2.19 candy bar. That's because low-level shoplifting offenses become felonies in Pennsylvania when a person's been charged twice before, regardless of an item's value. The ACLU says the case speaks to systemic flaws, and York Dispatch reports Hildebrand's third strike may in reality only be his second. 

OFFICE MEMO: Former congressman and powerful Philadelphia Democrat Bob Brady urged a local progressive candidate to end her primary campaign in exchange for his support for a future judicial appointment, according to a memo obtained by The Intercept. Caroline Turner is running on a progressive platform without party backing in a crowded primary race, and she isn't the only one alleging pressure from the party.

» CAPITAL-STAR: Public applicants sought for redistricting chair

» MORNING CALL: Amtrak's 'Vision': Service from Allentown to NYC

» NEW YORK TIMES: How health care became Steel City's big industry

» PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: Philly families left to clean up homicides

» WHYY: Amazon outbids SEPTA for proposed trolley barn space

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