A table is completely covered by bong recreations of famous fictional characters ranging from The Mandelorian and Grogu to the alien from Toy Story.
Vendors at Pittsburgh's third annual Cannabis Fest brought an array of cannabis paraphernalia and commodities. Photo by Roman Hladio.

At a Pennsylvania Senate session on July 6, two senators introduced Senate Bill 846 to legalize adult use marijuana. While the bill is being reviewed by the Senate Law and Justice committee pending further deliberation, Pittsburgh cannabis advocates are pushing for the destigmatization of the plant.

“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 Pittsburgh native and plant-based medicine educator and advocate. Vensel is also on the executive committee of the Pittsburgh branch of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Bill 846, filed by Republican Daniel Laughlin and Democrat Sharif Street, would establish a Cannabis Regulatory Control Board, in addition to allowing the purchase of cannabis products for anyone over the age of 21 at dispensaries, giving medical card holders the right to home grow cannabis and expunging 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,” said Laughlin when the bill was unveiled. “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.”

In 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Health implemented the state’s medical marijuana program. In the seven years since, some 175 dispensaries have opened across the state, all serving patients with state medical cards.

While Sativa, Indica and Hybrid strains of cannabis are the only variants many people — even medical patients — know about, Vensel says so much more goes into selecting cannabis.

“Think of it like when you buy a bottle of vitamins and how it’ll say on the label all the different ingredients and the different stuff inside that,” Vensel says. “It’s the same way in our medical cannabis program.”

Photo courtesy of Gina Vensel.

Cannabis products are not only composed of a mix of Cannabidiol (or CBD, marijuana’s relaxing agent) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC, a psychoactive that produces a high), but also a mix of terpenes, which give cannabis its smell and provide differing health benefits depending on their type.

“So if someone, for example, has trouble sleeping, they’re going to want to find a mixture of terpenes that are going to allow them to find relief so that they can sleep at night,” Vensel says. “If someone like me, who has high-functioning anxiety, would over consume cannabis, I would actually have adverse effects.”

Vensel says that much of the stigma around cannabis comes from a lack of knowing that specific mixtures can affect specific individuals differently. For Vensel, overconsumption would cause nervousness and heart fluttering — symptoms that uneducated users often assume are a heart attack induced by cannabis overconsumption.

The lack of knowledge about cannabis only makes the case for another of the bill’s aspects — the release of nonviolent, cannabis-related prisoners — even more important.

“If you have been convicted of cannabis possession or selling and it’s on your record, right now as it stands you’re not allowed to participate in the medical program at all,” Vensel says. “You can’t work at a dispensary. Yet we can’t forget that for many years, the folks that were in the underground were the ones providing this medicine to so many people, and they put themselves at risk to do so.”

In the same year as the medical marijuana program’s implementation, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia decriminalized the drug, meaning that within those city limits, an individual found in possession of up to 30 milligrams of marijuana will be fined instead of jailed.

A park sidewalk is full of people looking at vendors and smoking. Along the sidewalk are informational and merchandise tents.
Crowds walk through the tents at Pittsburgh’s third annual Cannabis Fest in Allegheny Commons Park on Sunday, Aug. 13. Photo by Roman Hladio.

Aside from health and social equity, the bill also gives a new small business sector the chance to thrive.

Currently, many dispensaries found within Allegheny County are run by large, multistate operators, such as Trulieve and Zen Leaf.

Legalization provides the opportunity for anyone to open a dispensary and add their unique products to the health and recreational markets.

“I like to think about this in terms of beer,” Vensel says. “It would be like — in cannabis — there only being Budweiser or Coors, but we want those microbreweries too. We want those small, independent breweries to be able to make their beer.

“We don’t just want the big corporations to own the lion’s share of this. We want to be able to allow independent people to grow smaller batches and to get involved. Right now, the way our state is set up, it will never allow that to happen unless these laws change.”

The sales tax associated with purchases, Vensel adds, goes right back to the state, which can then fund road or bridge infrastructure, school improvements or public transportation.

“That’s what I try to talk to a lot of the more conservative folks about, is that we can actually use the money from this plant to do so much good for our communities,” Vensel says.

The tent of CannabisFest organizer ZeroFossil sports a table cloth, flags and banners with a nine-leafed plant. On the table is merchandise and renewable energy informational papers.
The ZeroFossil tent at Cannabis Fest. ZeroFossil powers the events it hosts through renewable energy sources. Photo by Roman Hladio.

With the potential for legalization looming on the horizon, some Pittsburgh residents are showing their cannabis enthusiasm.

On Sunday, Aug. 13, the northeastern corner of Allegheny Commons Park on the North Side budded with tents for Pittsburgh’s third annual Cannabis Fest with live music, food trucks, medical marijuana card information and registration booths, dispensary tables and cannabis educators.

This year, Vensel’s strategic marketing and event production company Easy Street Promotions worked closely with Cannabis Fest organizer ZeroFossil to ensure that the event remained free to the public.

“By allowing an event like Cannabis Fest to remain free for our community, I feel allows the canna-curious community — those folks that are on the fritz or they want that education but they’re still unsure about the plant — it gives them the ability to come and speak with cannabis professionals, meet cannabis pharmacists and be amongst like-minded individuals so that they feel comfortable to ask questions,” Vensel says.

Roman wants to hear the stories created in Pittsburgh. When not reporting, he plays difficult video games that make him upset and attempts to make delicious meals out of mismatched leftovers.