In Pennsylvania’s second-largest city, advocates are busy working to legalize adult-use cannabis.
Last month, two lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 846 to legalize adult-use cannabis in Pennsylvania. The bill currently waits for review from the Senate Law and Justice Committee for further deliberation. Next Pittsburgh reports that advocates at a local Pittsburgh branch of NORML are gearing up for legalization efforts in the state.
“This is a much bigger issue than just cannabis—it’s about giving people the right to be able to find health and wellness in the way that they want to and to not have to feel like the government will tell them how they’re allowed to heal,” says Gina Vensel, a cannabis educator and advocate in the area. Vensel is also on the executive committee of Pittsburgh NORML, the Pittsburgh branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
SB 846 is a bipartisan effort and was spearheaded by Sens. Daniel Laughlin and Sharif Street. The bill would establish a Cannabis Regulatory Control Board, and allow adults 21 and over to purchase cannabis from retail locations. It would additionally allow medical cannabis cardholders to grow cannabis at home. Lastly it would expunge nonviolent cannabis-related convictions.
“Legalized adult use of marijuana is supported by an overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians and this legislation accomplishes that while also ensuring safety and social equity,” Laughlin said in a statement. “With neighboring states New Jersey and New York implementing adult use, we have a duty to Pennsylvania taxpayers to legalize adult use marijuana to avoid losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars of new tax revenue and thousands of new jobs.”
Problems Remain in Pittsburgh
High Times reported in 2018 that Solevo Wellness was the city’s first medical dispensary, and is the fourth operating medical cannabis dispensary in the entire state of Pennsylvania. The process of establishing, licensing, and opening Solevo Wellness took about 18 months. The company credits much of their success in obtaining the proper permits to their hired industry consultant, Sara Gullickson.
Pittsburgh, located in Allegheny County, decriminalized cannabis in 2015. Part of the policy shift involved giving law enforcement a choice between arresting people for suspected cannabis offenses or simply giving them a citation. Further downstream the criminal legal system, prosecutors in Pennsylvania’s major cities enacted “decline to prosecute” policies for minor cannabis cases that went to trial.
Despite decriminalization locally, arrests for cannabis increased since Pittsburgh enacted decriminalization policies. Many officers at police departments are having a hard time letting go of the old policy, continuing to arrest rather than ticket suspected offenders.
Analyzing all the criminal dockets filed in Allegheny County from 2016 to 2017, The Appeal broke down the 2,100-some cases where the top charge was possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis. They also looked at the thousands of arrests for minor possession police made over the same period.
Of the 2,100-plus cannabis-related cases in Allegheny County where the defendant received a misdemeanor possession charge, 51 percent of the people charged were Black. According to the most recent U.S. census data from 2017, 13.4 percent of all Allegheny residents are Black. And the dramatic racial disparity across the county is even more acute in Pittsburgh: Black people were charged in more than 400 of the 600 cases filed by the Pittsburgh Police Department. Black people comprised two-thirds of all cannabis cases in the city, despite representing just 24.3 percent of the city’s population. In other words, Pittsburgh police charged Black people for cannabis twice as much as white people.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and Decriminalization
On a few notable occasions, Pittsburgh Pirate games provided a stage for decriminalization efforts and awareness.
Wiz Khalifa, a Pittsburgh native, is an advocate for both cannabis and psilocybin. He tossed the ceremonial first pitch on Monday at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, prior to a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Guardians. “Finna get stoned af and throw this first pitch at the pirates game,” he tweeted, before following it up with more specifics. “Shroomed out throwin a baseball is crazy,” Wiz said in another tweet moments later.
Former Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis pulled off a pitch on acid as well on June 12, 1970.
It was on that day that Ellis reputedly threw a no-hitter while tripping on LSD.
“According to Ellis (and, it should be noted, all of this is according to Ellis), he went to visit a friend in Los Angeles the day before his start, took some acid and stayed up late into the night drinking and doing drugs, subsequently losing track of which day it was,” Sports Illustrated wrote in 2017. “The day of his start, he woke up and, thinking he was supposed to pitch the next day, took another hit of acid at noon, only to learn two hours later from his friend that he was, in fact, supposed to be on the mound against the Padres that evening in San Diego. Ellis got on a plane an hour later and made it to the park 90 minutes before first pitch.”
For the time being, advocates in the city remain busy at work.