Fetterman reports high support for cannabis legalization, decriminalization

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman testifies at a House and Senate Democratic joint Policy Committee hearing on marijuana legalization.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman told Democratic lawmakers on Monday that residents in 50 counties have shown strong support for legalizing recreational cannabis for adults.

Appearing Monday before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Democratic Policy committees, Fetterman shared the preliminary findings from his statewide recreational marijuana listening tour, which began in January, and will take him to each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to hear residents sound off on the policy debate.

Bills in the House and Senate would make recreational marijuana legal for all Pennsylvanians over the age of 21. But the legislation faces staunch opposition from Republican leaders in both chambers, who have final say on what bills make it to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

Fetterman said the Wolf administration doesn’t yet have an official position on legalization. But based on what he’s seen on his listening tour, he said, the vast majority of Pennsylvanians think it’s time to give the policy a fair hearing.

He told lawmakers that only two of the 50 counties he’s visited so far yielded audiences that mostly opposed legalization.

All others showed strong support for ending Pennsylvania’s prohibition on cannabis, he said. That conforms with statewide polling on the subject, which finds support among registered voters for legalization in Pennsylvania approaching 60 percent.

Even among those who oppose a legal market, Fetterman said that most support the decriminalization of marijuana, which would reduce or eliminate criminal penalties for its possession.

Federal sentencing guidelines currently classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, a category that includes drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

But according to Fetterman, even Pennsylvanians who oppose legal marijuana “don’t see it as some kind of menace.”

“I have not heard anyone [say] that it belongs in the Schedule 1 classification,” he added.

Fetterman also voiced the view, shared by Democratic Sens. Sharif Street, of Philadelphia, Daylin Leach, of Montgomery County, and Rep. Jake Wheatley, of Allegheny County, that legalization would make amends for a failed war on drugs that locked up thousands of non-violent offenders for marijuana possession.

“The current system has not saved us money and saved lives,” Wheatley said. “It has cost us money and cost us lives.”

Critics of legalization movements say that states can achieve crucial criminal justice reform without legalizing cannabis.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the nation’s leading anti-marijuana organization, for instance, supports decriminalization but thinks marijuana should not be a legal, commercial product.

SAM communications assistant William Jones made that case before lawmakers on Monday. His position was shared by John T. Adams of the Pennsylvania Public Defenders Association, which supports decriminalization but opposes legalization.

“If we can decriminalize, we can move a lot of [cases] out of the criminal justice system,” Adams said.

Fetterman said that many people who support legalization still want tight controls to keep the commercial market in check. Parents worry about the commercial market targeting children in its advertisements, he said, and entrepreneurs don’t want it to squeeze small producers out of the industry.

Some legalization proponents have raised the idea of having state-owned cannabis dispensaries, modeled after Pennsylvania’s state-run liquor stores, Fetterman said. Others support a permitting system similar to the one employed by the state’s medical marijuana program.

Leach, the co-sponsor with Street of the Senate’s legalization proposal, said Pennsylvania may have to choose between a highly regulated industry that mandates a level of diversity among its participants, or a lightly controlled industry with low barriers of entry.

But the bill he’s co-sponsoring with Street envisions the latter. It doesn’t include a provision for state-owned cannabis stores, nor does it propose capping the number of permits available to qualified cannabis growers.

“We want to provide entrepreneurial opportunities,” Leach said, adding that such opportunities would be limited “if we did it through state stores.”

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