Lawmaker: Expunge cannabis convictions

Political Notebook

As state authorities and dispensaries brace for a surge of interest in new, more powerful medical marijuana, a lawmaker is launching another long-shot effort to legalize the drug and free those jailed for using it.

State Rep. Jake Wheatley Jr., D-Pittsburgh, said he is preparing a bill to legalize recreational use of marijuana, as several other states and the District of Columbia have done. While a growing share of the population — and of legislators across the country — support loosening marijuana rules, not all have proposed expunging the records of those arrested for using or selling the drug.

“I am so pleased to see many of our most in-need residents all over the commonwealth able to improve their health through medical marijuana, but I believe we can do more,” Wheatley said in a memo to colleagues last week.

His proposal comes as state dispensaries prepare to sell their first shipments of marijuana flower this week. The plant’s flower is its most commonly recognizable part, often illegally smoked in joints, pipes or bongs.

While those tools are set to remain illegal, users will now be able to use vaporizers to inhale the drug, as opposed to the tablets and tinctures they have been limited to until now.

The growing range of options for medical users coincides with a continuing increase in the popularity of recreational legalization. Polls consistently show most voters back relaxed laws, and several Pennsylvania cities have already scaled back enforcement.

That does little, however, for those facing jail time or fines for using, selling or growing the drug.

From 2011-16, marijuana possession arrest rates in Pennsylvania shot up — particularly among black residents, who, by 2016, were more than eight times as likely as white residents to be charged, according to an American Civil Liberties Union study.

Even at that time, decriminalization had an effect: Philadelphia, which decriminalized the drug in 2015, was a notable exception to the trend, and Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and State College have followed since then.

Wheatley pointed to other states that have reaped financial and legal benefits since legalizing the drug.

“Pennsylvanians have spoken,” he said. “They know the once ugly stigma behind marijuana is just a part of history now, and instead see the revenue generated and the reduced spending and incarceration in our criminal justice system as the way forward.”

His efforts might not yet find enough support to pass the Legislature. The GOP-dominated body allowed medical use only after a long campaign, and local representatives were among the 43 Republicans who voted no.

Locals eschew impeachment effort

Local congressmen have not signed on to a House effort to impeach the nation’s deputy attorney general, leaving a single Pennsyl­vania Republican to back to the far-fetched effort.

House Republicans made news last week when 11 conservative members launched an effort to remove U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, part of a broader effort to challenge an ongoing federal investigation into President Donald Trump and his associates.

The group — including Rep. Scott Perry, R-4th District — claimed Rosenstein hid important information from Congress as members investigated wrongdoing at the FBI.

The impeachment effort quickly took a hit, however, when House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., refused to sign on. That left the group with little support, and other Pennsylvania GOP congressmen notably quiet.

Obamacare lives,

but under siege

The insurance exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act are set to survive and, in some cases, expand in Pennsylvania, despite efforts to chip away at its provisions.

Insurers this summer have mostly requested small rate hikes for those getting insurance through the system, commonly called Obamacare. And new providers are set to join in several counties, regulators said, making for more options and more competition in areas that only have one choice.

Bedford County remains among those with only one option. The exchanges, backed by subsidies for those below a certain income limit, offer policies to people who don’t get their care through employers or other sources.

The Trump administration has fought Obamacare, eliminating many of its key provisions but failing to repeal the law entirely. As the midterm congressional elections approach, some Pennsylvania Republicans think they can run against the program.

“We have to get rid of it altogether,” Rep. Mike Kelly, R-3rd District, told conservative outlet Breitbart last week. “Some of the Democrats would love to run away from the Affordable Care Act, but they can’t — it’s their construct, they’re the ones that put it through and now they’re trying to find excuses for why they think it still has the merit.”

That may be true in some districts, but overall, polls have shown most Pennsylvanians don’t oppose the bill.

A poll last year showed half of residents backed the law, while 39 percent opposed it. Exit polls this year in a district Trump won by 20 percent showed the population roughly split on the issue.

Ryan Brown can be emailed at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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