The controversy over Lt. Gov. Fetterman’s marijuana listening tour, explained

The Lancaster stop on Lt. Gov. John Fetterman's legal marijuana listening tour. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

When Lt. Gov John Fetterman announced in January that he would embark on a state-wide marijuana listening tour, the idea struck many as a quaint and earnest exercise in democracy.

Over three months, Fetterman would visit each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to hear residents sound off on marijuana legalization. Tiny Cameron County, with a population of 4,600, would get the same attention as the million-plus residents in Philadelphia County.

But the initiative has come under attack this month from Republican lawmakers, who claim that the strong show of support for legalization at more than 40 town hall events doesn’t reflect the attitudes they see in their districts.

Four Republican state representatives said last week that they’ll be absent from an upcoming stop in Franklin County.

In a joint statement, Reps. John Hershey, Rob Kauffman, Paul Schemel, and Jesse Topper called the tour a “sham” and a “cover to push an agenda of legalizing drugs.”

They also expressed doubt that Fetterman wanted to listen to opponents, and said, “Rep. Hershey already experienced this firsthand when he attended a ‘listening’ tour in Juniata County at the lieutenant governor’s invitation.”

Hershey was not available to comment Monday about his experience in Juniata County. In a Facebook post following the event, he thanked Fetterman for leading a “civil conversation” and expressed surprise that more than half the audience voiced support for legalization.

On Sunday afternoon, I joined Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Juniata County Commissioners Alice Gray and Todd Graybill, as…

Posted by PA State Rep. John Hershey on Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The lawmakers aren’t the first to suggest Fetterman’s tour is skewed to favor marijuana supporters.

At a gathering of Pennsylvania conservatives earlier this month, state Rep. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, said that marijuana supporters are over-represented at the events.

He also said that people in the medical marijuana industry received advance notice of the events and encouraged supporters to attend.

Fetterman’s office denied Dush’s claims. In an interview with the Capital-Star last week, Fetterman accused Dush of “stacking rooms” by asking marijuana opponents, including his own mother, to attend and share public comments.

Dush said Monday that his mother decided on her own to attend one of the meetings.

And while he declined to identify the person who told him that marijuana industry insiders got advance notice of the tour dates, Dush did say that he tried to increase turnout for the event in his district, only because he felt it was important for all viewpoints to be heard.

“Given the way it was set up, I knew it had a pre-ordained outcome,” Dush said. “I wanted to get enough people who were reflective of general population out there.”

Dush said he walked up and down a street near his district office to encourage members of the public to attend the listening tour event in Jefferson County. He said he “wasn’t picky” about who he invited, either. Two of the men who he convinced to attend were actually in favor of legalization, he said.

But between a fundraiser for local firefighters and church activities, Dush said many of the people he invited were unable to attend.

Dush commended Fetterman for moderating a civil and respectful discussion in Jefferson County. He also acknowledged that the swell of support at the events is likely the result of motivated legalization advocates, and not back-room scheming among politicians. 

Even so, he still thinks that the deafening calls for legalization don’t match the true will of the people in districts like his.

“I know my constituency and most of rural Pennsylvania is not for this,” Dush said.

‘Advocates are impassioned and turn out’

Fetterman told the Capital-Star last week that his events offer an open, unbiased venue for Pennsylvanians of all beliefs. But according to experts, there are some plausible reasons why proponents have had a strong showing.

The first has to do with shifting public opinion. Polls show that a record number of Americans support legalization. Pennsylvania is no exception — a recent Franklin & Marshall poll put support for legalization at 59 percent, up from 22 percent in 2006.

Marijuana opponents, however, would say that polls can generate skewed results by presenting legalization as the only alternative to current prohibition laws.

Luke Niforatos, a lobbyist for the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said that poll participants respond differently when they’re offered options like decriminalization, which would reduce or eliminate criminal penalties for possession.

A poll SAM commissioned in New York found that support for legalization fell by 20 percentage points when participants were asked to choose among legalization, decriminalization, medical marijuana, and full prohibition.

It’s possible that dynamic is at work on Fetterman’s listening tours.

Fetterman said last week that he’s found “near universal” support for decriminalization and sentencing reform among listening tour audiences. But he ends each town hall event by asking the audience to raise their hands to show support for legalization.

In county after county, crowds have shown overwhelming support for that proposal.

The second reason that supporters come out in force is that they have more to gain from legalization than opponents do, said Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“Advocates are impassioned and turn out,” Caulkins said. “People who don’t want legalization will tend not to show up.”

Caulkins told the Capital-Star last week that if someone supports marijuana legalization, their views on cannabis are probably a salient part of their political identity. But that’s not true for opponents.

“There is almost nobody in the world who defines themselves as being against cannabis,” Caulkins said.

There also remains almost no organized opposition to the legalization movement.

As a result, Caulkins isn’t surprised that supporters are turning out in large numbers for the town hall events. But that doesn’t mean that the straw polls capture an accurate snapshot of public opinion.

“I don’t think it’s artificial, but it is somehow distorted,” Caulkins said. “It’s not a conspiracy, but it is a phenomenon that those who turn out would be non-representative of who you would get in the general public.”


  1. Pennsylvanians support for recreational cannabis legalization has simply recently caught up with the rest of the nation with about 60% supporting freedom and the ending of this fraudulently enacted, costly prohibition.

    If anything, the sample of those who show up are skewed against legalization. People in support would be concerned about potential repercussions, random ‘drug testing’, outrage from neighbors and coworkers who fell for the propaganda, etc. and be less inclined to go.

    On a related note, most of those who show up against legalization tend to be the most brainwashed from the decades of anti-cannabis propaganda that has plagued this nation. They truly believe that cannabis is this horrible, demonic drug and that they must fight against this terrible wrong. Their words and demeanor reflect this. If they had accurate, in-context (especially compared with alcohol and pharmaceuticals), balanced information, they would likely have a different view.

  2. These are reports by members from a very biased federal program, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program.

    The Rocky Mountain HIDTA does not mention their conflict of interest, that in time they stand to lose a very large share of their funding with the legalization of cannabis. Once again their annual report should be considered nothing but propaganda.

    For example: “This report will cite datasets with terms such as “marijuana-related ”or“ tested positive for marijuana.” that does not necessarily prove that marijuana was the cause of the incident” -Rocky Mountain HIDTA, 2015.

    In addition data collection methods have changed since legalization which can skew comparisons in their favor.

    Even Washington Governor Jay Inslee called the RMHIDTA “incomplete and unreliable data that does not provide the most accurate snapshot”. The official report done by state government (who were also against legalization), shows a much different picture, and that the dire predictions have not come to pass.


    “A Review of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area 2017 Report”

    “Dear USA Today: Marijuana Hasn’t Devastated Colorado”


    “Dishonest Government Report Assumes Marijuana Legalization Has No Benefits”


    “Supposedly Neutral Federal Report Stacks The Deck Against Marijuana Legalization”

    “Kevin Sabet Is Misleading You Again About Marijuana Legalization”

  3. Colorado and Washington State legalized recreational cannabis in Dec 2012. Legal sales began in Jan 2014 for Colorado, July 2014 for Washington.
    Clearly legal cannabis has not caused a surge in opioid deaths. It may have had a protective effect (as published studies support).

    Opioid Overdose Death Rate per 100,000 (age adjusted):

    2012: 7.4
    2017: 14.9 (increased 101%)

    Pennsylvania (legal medical only, begun in 2018)
    2012: 6.8
    2017: 21.2 (increased 212%)

    Washington State
    2012: 9.7
    2017: 9.6 (decreased 1%)

    2012: 7.7
    2017: 10.0 (increased 30%)

    [SOURCE: Kaiser Family Foundation]

    Cannabis has been used by millions of American drivers for decades regardless of legalization.

    One of the first studies to examine the data and consider the many confounders found that legal cannabis was associated with a temporary traffic fatality increase of one in a million residents, but just in the first year after legalization:

    “traffic fatalities temporarily increased by an average of one additional traffic fatality per million residents”
    [Lane TJ, Hall W. Traffic fatalities within US states that have legalized recreational cannabis sales and their neighbours. Addiction. 2019]

    If this is indeed caused by legal cannabis, any state legalizing cannabis could easily offset this tiny increase with preemptive cannabis DUI prevention campaigns…or better yet put that money into alcohol DUI prevention since alcohol is FAR more dangerous behind the wheel.

    Colorado saw a reduction in fatal traffic accidents in 2018.

    Many states have legalized cannabis, and none, voters nor legislators, want to reinstate prohibition.

    Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper was always against legal cannabis. He had no choice as the people forced legalization through a ballot inititive. He said other states should wait a couple of years before legalizing. After one and a half years of legalization even he has come around and admitted that it has gone smoother than expected:

    “It seems like the people that were smoking before are mainly the people that are smoking now,” Hickenlooper said as Colorado marked six months of legal recreational sales last week. “If that’s the case, what that means is that we’re not going to have more drugged driving, or driving while high. We’re not going to have some of those problems. But we are going to have a system where we’re actually regulating and taxing something, and keeping that money in the state of Colorado…and we’re not supporting a corrupt system of gangsters.”
    [SOURCE: “How Is Marijuana Legalization Going? The Price Of Pot Peace Looks Like A Bargain”. Forbes. Jul 2014]

    After two years he has reiterated this:

    “If you look back, it’s turned out not to be as vexing as some people like myself…. I opposed the original vote, didn’t think it was a good idea. But the voters spoke and we’re trying to make it work, and I think we are. Again, it’s not as vexing as we thought it was going to be.”
    [SOURCE: John Hickenlooper Says Legalizing Pot Not as Vexing as We Thought. WestWord. Apr 2015]

    And again after three years:

    “If I had that magic wand now, I don’t know if I would wave it,” he said. “It’s beginning to look like it might work.”
    [SOURCE: Governor who called legalization ‘reckless’ now says Colorado’s pot industry is working. LA Times. May 2016]

  4. Caulkins is a patronizing know it all. I was in some of his classes at CMU. He thinks he can turn everything into a statistical model and tell everyone what they should do with their life. He never mentions the racist and political history of marijuana criminalization and fails to mention he works for a think tank that receives the majority of its funding from federal organizations tasked with enforcing anti-drug laws. He needs to stick to helping delivery companies sort packages, he is an out of touch nerd.


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