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

By: - April 23, 2019 7:20 am

The Lancaster stop on Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s legal marijuana listening tour (Capital-Star photo).

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.

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.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.