Interviews & Profiles

Q&A with state Rep. Chris Rabb

The Philadelphia progressive discusses medical cannabis, legalization and money in politics.

state Rep. Chris Rabb

state Rep. Chris Rabb Commonwealth Media Services

Democratic state Rep. Chris Rabb has long been an advocate for the legalization of cannabis, and the Philadelphia lawmaker is hoping his lived experiences as a medical cannabis patient will help inspire changes to the state’s cannabis laws. 

But as Pennsylvania’s neighbors move to legalize cannabis for recreational use and the Keystone State lags behind, Rabb is warning his colleagues to take a cautious and measured approach to crafting cannabis policy.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

Where is Pennsylvania in its cannabis legalization journey?

I am speaking as someone who's had direct knowledge of this as a medical cannabis patient – but I haven't renewed my cannabis card because I don't like all the unnecessary hoops that consumers have to jump through; and I have it easy. I make more money than the average Pennsylvanian. I have more access and status and yet it's still unduly arduous to get and keep your card – and it's a boondoggle. If you have a chronic disease, that means it doesn't go away. So why would you need to re-up every year? That just feels like a money grab to me. When I signed up, they didn't tell me that if you're a gun owner, or you have a driver's license, or you're a tenant, or you're an employee, that you could be fired, you could be arrested, you can be evicted by being a law-abiding medical cannabis patient. We’re probably moving towards a million folks with a medical cannabis card – and I’m guessing 90% of us don’t know all the ways that this could hurt us when the reason we’re doing it is because to improve our health outcomes. It’s maddening.

The other piece is our legislative body is illiterate as it relates to cannabis policy. Proposals from individual legislators reach a very small subset of the entire body. For instance, there’s a Senate bill – SB 773 – a Republican bill to expand medical cannabis and dispensaries and make some other changes. Fourteen Democrats will have had to review the bill to a greater or lesser extent and vote on it, and they did, but then it goes to the House floor … So we’ll be voting in just a few days on a significant reform of the medical cannabis statute that could have some very bad impacts that will not have been discussed in earnest before it comes to the floor. Those conversations shouldn’t just happen among House Democrats. They should be happening in a bipartisan, bicameral conversation where we talk about the complexities, nuances and opportunities of these policies from a number of different angles. It’s not going to be just one meeting, even if it’s a dozen meetings to get it right, because we see other states getting it very wrong.

For instance, if we have adult-use cannabis legalization here in Pennsylvania, and we tax the hell out of cannabis, then the black market will continue to thrive, which means that that’s unregulated weed that children are using, seniors, folks who are ill – everyone who wants access to weed without going through the legal channels. We’re not going to be helping from a public health perspective if we have overtaxed cannabis. If we have cannabis commercialization where it’s all white men making tons of money off of everyone else, then that just makes things worse. If you’re talking about a new or burgeoning industry, one that has, over the years, profited off the misery and incarceration of Black and brown and poor people – and then after it’s legalized, the same people who are making the most money are doing it legally and the people whose lives have been turned upside down do not benefit from that upside, they can’t get jobs because they have a criminal record – that’s a problem. 

Even if we do enact something into law that puts us on the same level as other states surrounding us, it doesn't necessarily mean we're going to be at a better place. That's a real concern of mine, because the people who will fall through the cracks are the same people, for generations, through prohibition, who had been caught up in the prison industrial complex and have had the worst outcomes, and unless and until we address that head-on through a lens of social equity, I'm not going to be impressed or particularly thrilled about any of this until those conversations are had. And I just don't know if Harrisburg has the collective maturity and intentionality to convene those conversations.

Just to make it very clear, those conversations – in your eyes – haven’t happened to date?

No. Here's the other open secret that shocks a lot of my constituents and others when I say there are no real, substantive, ongoing or consistent settings in which state reps and state senators can be in a room with the cameras off and have deep policy conversations. The closest you can get to that is a hearing. But in hearings, it’s where experts talk to Democrats and Republicans and we respond to them with questions, but we don’t talk to each other. So we don’t actually process the knowledge and the information shared by actual experts, and then say, “Okay, well now that we have that information, let’s talk about it between us as legislators in order to inform better legislation.” That’s not what happens. 

I think there’s a basic and reasonable assumption from the general population that that’s what we do – because that’s what we’re supposed to do – but we don’t do it. There’s nothing structurally that forces us or even incentivizes those types of conversations. When we have reporting around discussion on the House floor or the Senate floor around a bill that may have some bipartisan support, the conversation happens within minutes or hours on one day, and that’s it. You can’t be talking about an industry that’s going to produce billions of dollars in Pennsylvania alone, and reduce it to one conversation over a matter of a couple of hours in one day. That is simply not wise. Until we commit to digging deeper and connecting authentically, which I know sounds pie-in-the-sky for Harrisburg legislators, I really fear what will happen.

I want to shift back to some of the issues you mentioned with the medical program. Are they issues that can be remedied at the state level or is it still going to take some action from the federal government with how cannabis is scheduled?

It’s a both/and. So yes, we can kind of put some spackle in the cracks that exist between federal and state policies. Absolutely. I have four separate bills that fill in those cracks, and they’re not perfect, but they provide safeguards for people who don’t even know they’re at risk … Most people still don’t know how imperiled they may be by doing the right thing after consulting a physician and jumping through all the hoops and getting this card – and that card does not protect you. It just allows you to buy stuff at a dispensary. What you do with it, how you use it, where you use it, when you use it are things that can get you into serious, serious trouble even if you haven’t done anything wrong. That is something that very few of my colleagues fully understand because most of them are not medical cannabis patients. Most of them have not had to do any due diligence, particularly if they’re not on any of the committees where these bills originate. 

In an ideal setting, what would an adult-use recreational system look like?

We center a lot of the commercialization and access to legal cannabis through the lens of dispensaries, but if we’re talking about a plant, what about homegrow? Why can’t we entrust people who buy plants or who grow from trusted sources within our commonwealth? I’m really concerned about multistate operators and the Walmart-ification of cannabis. I don’t think it’s a real choice if you have to go to a dispensary to buy everything you need if you know what to do with the plant that you cultivate. You have this massive industry of folks who run dispensaries in other states and they want to come into ours and profit off of the desire of millions of Pennsylvanians. But this needs to be centered on what makes sense for Pennsylvania, not so much from a revenue standpoint, but from a public health standpoint, from a consumer protection standpoint. 

I want to make sure that consumers know what they're ingesting. But I also want them to have the freedom to grow on their own. That gets overlooked because the structure that you referenced when we talk about structuring adult-use cannabis, it is in the context of a brick-and-mortar store that the state confers the authority in the right to sell stuff, but as I mentioned before, we already have dispensaries and there is no ethnic diversity or class diversity. You have to have $2 million in a bank to be eligible applicants. How many Black and brown folk have access to that? How many longstanding working class white communities have access to that? It is by design to help those folks who have the most privilege. 

I want to circle back to people who have criminal records for cannabis-related crimes. Like you said – that can lead to imprisonment, all sorts of problems with employment and housing. How do we address some of these things? What does that need to look like in policy?

Well, there's an overarching narrative and belief that if you have served time and you’re released, you’ve paid your debt to society. So, if that’s what we believe, why would we punish someone, why do we restrict someone’s access to an industry or job that they may know more about than most other job applicants? I understand there’s some nuance there. You may say if someone has a career of robbing banks, you may not want them to work at a bank. I get that. But generally speaking, we’re talking about a lot of low-level offenses that have kept people out of even cultivating hemp. That’s absurd. 

There are all these vestiges of a deeply racist war on drugs that have prevented communities that are disproportionately impacted by incarceration and over-policing in ways that should be quite the opposite. All the new and big opportunities in this industry should start in those communities that have been disproportionately victimized by racist policies. But that’s not happening, because the folks who are best situated to benefit are the rich out-of-staters who do not come from those backgrounds, and they're the ones who hire the lobbyists and pay off the politicians – legally, even though it’s deeply unethical.

I can’t really talk about cannabis or any other major, complex or controversial issue without talking about the corrosive impact of money in politics … For me, I would prefer waiting to vote on substantive bills around this issue until we’ve addressed the gift ban and campaign contribution limits and other reforms before we do this. Because if those two things were in place, the quality of the bills, I think, would significantly improve.

In terms of helping communities that have been disproportionately impacted, does that look like grant money, does that look like prioritizing permits? What does that look like in terms of the mechanics?

There are a lot of different approaches to it. The most radical approach would be saying, “We're only going to accept so-called social equity applicants for the first X years, just to balance the scales.” That would be utterly preposterous in Harrisburg because the folks in power want to make sure that the richest, most influential people get their piece, first and foremost, and then they're going to do a lot of lip service around diversity and how they give scholarships and grants and stuff like that. That's all bullshit to do their bidding for profit maximization. This shouldn't be from a business nexus, about “How do we help the businesses do this?” This should be around public health and social equity. Anything else is smoke and mirrors. There are not a lot of folks who will do that because there's so much money involved. So much money.

Think about it like this. Any of these folks who promote some of these bad bills, they can retire and work as a government affairs executive and make a shit ton of money. We've seen people who are anti-cannabis in Congress, like the former Speaker of the House John Boehner, he was totally anti-cannabis and now he's a shill for the industry doing their dirty work for millions. The same thing happens in Harrisburg. So we have very good reason as Pennsylvanians to not trust the system because the system is inherently infected and I just don't think much good will come particularly in a split legislature. The one thing that incumbents might agree on is doing the bidding of industries that pay well and that's deeply disturbing, but that's the common point. It's not around public health, it’s not around criminal legal reform, it's not around social equity. it's not around consumer protections. It's around how we can help do the bidding of an industry that does not care about these issues, to the extent that they claim they do, and I know I'm in a small minority of legislators on this issue, but I'm not going to be silent about it even if it makes me unpopular. I know how Harrisburg works being in my fourth term now and any major lift we make is going to be compromised unless we address lobbying reform and campaign finance reform. It infects everything.

Back to Special Report: Cannabis in Pennsylvania