Rep. Chris Rabb, Pennsylvania General Assembly

Many elected officials have stepped forward to champion more sensible laws and policies that respect the experiences and needs of medical cannabis patients. Very few are willing to say that those laws and policies apply to them. Pennsylvania State Representative Christopher M. Rabb is one of the courageous few, using his experiences and position to advocate for expanding civil protections for patients in the state.

Elected in 2016 to represent the 200th District in northwest Philadelphia, Rep. Rabb took office as Pennsylvania was starting to implement the medical cannabis program the state legislature had established the previous spring. At that point, he had gone through high school, college and graduate school without ever trying cannabis, but he was looking for solutions to the disturbing effects of PTSD that had taken hold during the campaign.

On the Sunday afternoon before the primary, Rep. Rabb had just spoken with Alex Cherry, a young man who was interested in volunteering for his campaign. As he gave his name and phone number to one of Rabb’s aides, someone walked up behind him on the sidewalk and shot him dead. For Rabb, the father of two teenage sons, sleeping has been a struggle ever since.

“I don’t like taking medications,” says Rep. Rabb, who only tried alcohol for the first time at 31 and didn’t care for it. “All the medicines the doctors offered worried me because of the side effects and dependency, so I looked for other solutions that have been vetted. The tincture I use doesn’t make me high; it just helps me sleep.”

Speaking publicly about both his PTSD and medicinal cannabis use has made powerful connections for Rep. Rabb with others who struggle with the stigma associated with both.

“Some people were surprised when I started talking about, because not many people who achieve high-status positions like elected office will admit to something like PTSD, much less cannabis use,” Rep. Rabb says. “But at the end of the day, I know my mother loves me -- I don’t need others to validate my life choices.”

A graduate of Yale College with a master’s degree from University of Pennsylvania in organizational dynamics, Rep. Rabb wrote the book Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shape Entrepreneurial Opportunity (2010) while a visiting researcher at Princeton. He is a former adjunct professor who taught at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, and was a staffer at the White House Conference on Small Business during the Clinton administration and for the U.S. Senate.

Since being elected, Rep. Rabb founded the Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus Equity Committee and in his first year introduced and got enacted a bill that created a trust for educational scholarships and grants for support services for the poorest communities in the state, paid for by a 1% surcharge on state correctional contracts. That sensitivity to current and historical equity issues informs his approach to cannabis policy.

“Cannabis policy is deeply connected to economics and racial and social justice. It’s a Venn diagram of overlapping issues that have been racially weaponized.” Rep. Rabb says. “Expunging criminal records for cannabis drug offences is one thing, but racial justice is also about ensuring access to the enormous amount of wealth that will be created. If we believe in fairness, then there needs to be an on-ramp for people who have been disadvantaged to participate, and an equitable amount from the taxes should go to the communities most in need.”

Rep. Rabb also recognizes acutely and personally the lack of civil protections for medical cannabis patients and is working to end discrimination. Pennsylvania has a “per se” marijuana DUI law that says detection of even minute levels of THC or metabolites (1ng) is proof of impairment, even though people can test positive under that standard days and even weeks after any use. Rep. Rabb is reintroducing a bill to bring state law in line with science so people can’t lose their driving privileges simply for being medical cannabis patients. His efforts are bipartisan, as the companion bill in the state Senate is sponsored by a conservative Republican, Sen. Camera Bartolotta.

Rep. Rabb is also introducing a measure to protect tenants, so they can’t be evicted for being medical cannabis users. He’d like a bill that applies to public housing, too, but federal law and policy remain a problem. He also opposes restrictions on medical cannabis patients’ 2nd Amendment rights, as federal and state laws have been interpreted as preventing firearm purchase or ownership by qualified patients.

“I think we are going to get cannabis DUI reform passed this session,” Rep. Rabb says. “It is a critical amendment that will a build support structure. After that, all the others will be easier.”

Rep. Rabb’s other legislative priorities include enhancing social justice and equity for all Pennsylvanians, addressing climate change through renewable energy, and improving police accountability.

“I just don’t believe in prohibition,” Rep. Rabb says. “Our drug laws have not been modernized, and police are not been properly trained. The war on drugs has been the cause of so many negative things.”

Among the things Rep. Rabb does believe in is what he calls “grassroots co-governance,” which brings to policy decisions the voices of those affected. When it comes to medical cannabis, one of those voices is Rep. Rabb’s himself.

“My approach to medical cannabis is not just to vote the right way,” Rep. Rabb says. “It’s so right I do it myself.

This profile was originally published in the February 2021 ASA Activist Newsletter