Written By:  Bill O’Boyle - boboyle@timesleader.com

WILKES-BARRE — State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery/Delaware, and Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, last week introduced legislation that would end Pennsylvania’s prohibition of cannabis and would legalize cannabis for adult-use in Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania’s cannabis policy is cruel, irrational and expensive,” Leach said. “Prohibition has destroyed countless lives and has cost taxpayers millions.”

Leach continued, saying, “We need to stop arresting our kids and funding violent drug cartels. This is going to be a tough battle, but so was passing medical marijuana. We did that, and we’ll do this too. The stakes are too high for us to fail.”

Leach and Street said their legislation will end the ongoing destruction caused by cannabis prohibition and will establish a fair protocol for the use, sale and regulation of cannabis. The bill will provide economic opportunities and cannabis business education for people of all income levels. It also offers grants and loans to people who have been harmed by prohibition that they can use to start their own cannabis businesses.

“An end to the prohibition of cannabis is overdue,” Street said. “It is time for us to join the emerging cannabis economy with the legalization of the Adult Use of Cannabis in PA., which should not be a crime when responsibly used by adults nor mandate medical oversight. The economic imperatives are too great. We also have a moral mandate to correct the damage that disparate enforcement of our Marijuana Laws has done and is still doing to communities across the commonwealth.”

Leach introduced the bill’s language as Senate Bill 350. Next, the president pro tempore of the Senate will assign the bill to a Senate committee for consideration.

Leach started drafting SB 350 in late 2018. While he has introduced cannabis legalization bills in the past, after hearing from hundreds of Pennsylvanians on the issue, he decided to craft more comprehensive language. Leach has spent the last year meeting with and receiving feedback from stakeholders, constituents, local government officials and his colleagues in the General Assembly. The new bill no longer uses the state’s liquor stores as Pennsylvania’s method to dispense cannabis. SB 350 will establish a model that emphasizes healing the damage caused by prohibition and ensuring that Pennsylvanians of all income levels can participate in this new industry.

Key points on the bill:

• Establishes a system of permits for industry participants with low barriers to entry in order to allow people with limited resources to enter the cannabis industry.

• Addresses Pennsylvania’s history of criminalizing cannabis by providing for automatic expungement of previous criminal convictions, dismissal of pending charges, and commutation of sentences.

• The tax revenue collected pursuant to the bill — an estimated $500 million in the first full fiscal year of operation — will be appropriated to school districts using the 2016 fair funding formula (Act 35). School districts have total discretion over the funding; they may choose to invest in their schools, hire more teachers, or even provide local tax relief to homeowners in their districts.

• Use of cannabis will be permitted by adults over 21 years of age.

• Home delivery of cannabis will be permitted. The bill’s language allows deliverers, who may start their own company or work for dispensaries, to use any form of transportation—from cars to bicycles to public transportation—to deliver cannabis.

• People will be permitted to grow up to 10 plants for personal use in their own homes.

• Additional details about the bill can be found here.

Leach has also launched a Citizen Co-Sponsorship Campaign, where residents of Pennsylvania can sign on to support SB 350. Anyone who wants to review the bill’s language or sign on as a citizen co-sponsor may do so by visiting www.senatorleach.com/ccc.

The federal “Marijuana Tax Act,” passed 82 years ago, prohibits the use of cannabis for recreational purposes nationwide. However, 11 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized adult-use cannabis in some form, and the United States Department of Justice has largely allowed those states to operate their protocols without federal interference. In Pennsylvania, prohibition has resulted in about 25,000 Pennsylvanians, disproportionately people of color, being put into the criminal justice system per year. It costs the state more than a half-billion dollars per year to arrest, prosecute, incarcerate and monitor people arrested for cannabis-related offenses. This does not even include the cost of lost labor and missed educational opportunities.

Leach said nearly 60% of Pennsylvanians support ending prohibition. Eleven states and Washington, D.C. have legalized cannabis for adult use and 33 states have legalized medical cannabis, including Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf also recently announced that he too supports ending prohibition.

Medicare open enrollment

underway; ends Dec. 7

The Pennsylvania Department of Aging is reminding Medicare beneficiaries that the annual Medicare open enrollment period began Oct. 15, and ends Saturday, Dec. 7. Any new coverage selected takes effect January 1, 2020.

During open enrollment, new Medicare beneficiaries can sign up for Medicare Prescription Drug coverage and health plans to complement Medicare, and current Medicare beneficiaries can review and make changes to their current coverage so that it better meets their needs.

In order to help Medicare beneficiaries sort through their options, Pennsylvania offers free, objective health benefits counseling through the APPRISE Program, which is designed to counsel and encourage Medicare-eligible individuals, their families, and caregivers to make informed health care benefit decisions.

“We encourage seniors to take advantage of the free counseling services available through APPRISE, whether they are a new beneficiary or simply revisiting their coverage, because navigating any kind of health care options can be tedious and overwhelming,” said Department of Aging Secretary Robert Torres. “Having trained APPRISE counselors walk beneficiaries through their choices allows for factual, authentic conversations that can leave them more informed and confident in their coverage choices.”

Toomey bill honors

World War II heroes

Bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, seeks to honor a group of World War II heroes — the Merrill’s Marauders unit.

The Merrill’s Marauders Congressional Gold Medal Act directs the Treasury Department to strike a gold medal commemorating Merrill’s Marauders for their heroic feats during World War II.

As a long-range penetration special operations jungle warfare unit, Merrill’s Marauders fought the Japanese in the China-Burma-India Theater. Pennsylvania was home to 164 of the original Merrill’s Marauders members in the unit – the highest of any state.

“World War II required the mobilization of our entire country,” Toomey said. “The members of the Merrill’s Marauders unit represented the bravery and determination that propelled the Allied troops to victory.”

PA to pilot cutting-edge

election security measure

The Department of State, along with election officials in Mercer County and Philadelphia, are preparing a November post-election pilot of a cutting-edge security measure, the risk-limiting audit.

Sometimes referred to as a “smart” audit, the risk-limiting audit is a scientifically designed and highly effective procedure conducted after an election to check the accuracy of election outcomes. The election security measure is new to Pennsylvania and much of the country.

Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said the pilot project will allow the state to explore audit procedures that will further strengthen Pennsylvania’s election security profile and provide confidence to the voters that their votes are being counted accurately.

At the state and county levels, many important recommendations by national security and cyber-security experts are already in place in Pennsylvania, including mandatory preelection testing of all voting equipment before every election. The pilot audits will help determine whether the risk-limiting audit can complement existing safeguards and further strengthen the commonwealth’s ability to withstand attack on its election systems. The pilot audits will incorporate a number of variations of the basic procedure to evaluate operational efficiency and ease of use.