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Legalizing adult-use cannabis to provide a second chance, reform criminal justice system

Earlier this year, House Bill 2050 was introduced — a measure to allow for the legal sale of adult-use cannabis through a permitting structure for growers, processors, and dispensaries.

There are several great components contained in this bill, including provisions to help our youth, support affordable housing, and provide resources to help minority and women-owned businesses. In addition, it would provide a much-needed influx of revenue to our state at a time when we face significant economic challenges.

Unfortunately, one component of the bill that got lost in the media attention following its introduction is the Cannabis Clean Slate initiative, which would provide for the expungement of cannabis-related offenses for non-violent drug offenders.

If you think that this wouldn’t positively impact thousands of people across our state, think again. Nearly a quarter of a million Pennsylvanians have been arrested for nothing more than consuming a plant that’s legal in several states. That, in and of itself, is shameful, but imagine, years later, these same people who find it difficult to get a job, obtain a business loan, or pass a criminal background check — all because of an earlier charge on their record for possession or use of cannabis.

That’s wrong. Right now, we have the power to change this practice and take steps to reform our criminal justice system, which could literally change the lives of thousands of people in our great state. We can play a role in undoing the damage caused for over four decades due to criminalizing people for minor drug offenses.

Right now, approximately 16 percent of Americans have consumed cannabis at least once. It’s safe to say that most of them are not considered criminals. For Pennsylvanians who are or who were incarcerated, it’s long overdue to change the perceptions surrounding cannabis and bring about real reform.

Too many people are being and have been prosecuted for minor non-violent drug offenses, including cannabis possession or use — these are people who should have never entered the criminal justice system in the first place. They can and should be released and their records expunged because it puts them at a major disadvantage, not just with finding a job or getting a loan, but things that many of us take for granted, like chaperoning our children at school. Such offenses can also be unfairly used against someone during a child custody dispute, even when the so-called offense occurred more than a decade ago.

People deserve a second chance. Part of that is releasing Pennsylvanians from the adverse and collateral consequences of a criminal conviction for minor, non-violent drug offenses. For those who have already been released after serving their time, their records must be expunged.

These are not people who we need to worry about from a recidivism perspective. They deserve to have their records cleared.

It’s time to have the conversation on H.B. 2050 and move Pennsylvania forward.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny County, were joined in this column by Brandon Flood, secretary of the state Board of Pardons.

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