Lt. Gov. Fetterman on his 67-county cannabis tour: ‘A significant majority’ of Pennsylvanians support legalization

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman addresses the crowd at the Pottsville listening tour. (Capital-Star by Sarah Anne Hughes)

In just 98 days, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman visited all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties to let residents talk at him about one thing: cannabis legalization.

He’s hoping to deliver a report on the tour to the governor and the public in the next month or two, but as he noted to the Capital-Star — he’s new to state government.

“I’m not sure if that’s naive or overly optimistic,” he said with a laugh Monday.

Fetterman doesn’t know exactly how many people showed up to the 70 events, but the number is certainly in the thousands. The largest crowd topped 400 in Lancaster, while the smallest crowds were in Philadelphia, where the tour ended with three stops Sunday.

The Democrat wasn’t that surprised.

“My theory is that in areas where there is kind of universal buy-in, it’s kind of like, ‘Let’s just do it,'” Fetterman said. “Whereas in areas where it’s more debatable, it’s not quite so uniformly supported, I think that’s where you would get the bigger crowds.”

Before the conversation on cannabis legalization turns to the question “What happens next?,” the Capital-Star wanted to debrief Gov. Tom Wolf’s right-hand man on what he saw and learned on the tour. Our conversation, which was edited for clarity and length, is below.

Capital-Star: What are your overall takeaways from the listening tour?

Fetterman: Pennsylvania by a significant majority, I would estimate it — I don’t think it’s any lower than 65 percent, roughly, and I wouldn’t say it’s any higher than 70 — but somewhere in that vicinity supports legalizing cannabis for adult use.

Another takeaway is that people are grateful for our medical cannabis program universally. Even especially those that aren’t [for recreational cannabis] are glad, because they know somebody that has benefited from it personally or that they see the value’s there. And I think that’s a remarkable reversal in just a few short years from being a controversial topic to now, even in the reddest county, even with those that are opposed to it recreationally, they love medical cannabis.

Two, and as a side bar for medical cannabis, is if it is legalized recreationally, that they want a separate and distinct medical program. In other words, no one wants it to be, well, you can just buy whatever.

People appreciate that … that we maintain the integrity of our medical program.

Another thing on medical cannabis is that it is too expensive for Pennsylvanians on disability and other fixed incomes that really want it, but they lament that they can’t afford it. That was one of the most common themes that we heard, especially [from] veterans. The fact that the VA refuses to prescribe it and to work with that is another major takeaway.

Another theme is that they would want the cannabis to be grown on Pennsylvania farms to create Pennsylvania jobs. And they would want it to be something akin to our state [liquor and wine] store system that controls tight access to who gets it and doesn’t have a vested interest in promoting it or marketing it … to increase use among youth or anyone.

They don’t want a “Joe Camel” of cannabis.

Nobody, virtually, no one believes that it belongs on Schedule One. … That cuts across whether they want recreational or not. And also that, if there could be something along the lines of a mass expungement or decriminalization, once again, you know, almost unanimous support. They believe it’s silly or counterproductive to damage someone’s career or potential or what have you for simple possession of a “plant.”

So those are some of the big takeaways from it. And we saw that in virtually every county and region across Pennsylvania. And there isn’t one, you know, stereotypical look of a pro-person or a not person. People come from all walks of life.

Capital-Star: Was there an event or an instance that in particular surprised you, or an overall surprise about the tour?

Fetterman: Well, I wouldn’t use the word surprised. It would just be, it was very compelling, and the most compelling things were the personal anecdotes, especially from veterans.

We were in Montour County, I’ll never forget it. This gentleman had done four tours in Iraq and he was like, “I am alive but for cannabis, and my country thinks I’m a criminal if I use it. And it’s the only thing that makes me feel, I just want to get back to normal. Like, I’m never going to feel great, but I just want to get back to normal.”

And you know, just very powerful just talking about it. And we heard from a lot of veterans and a lot of parents whose children have been helped by medical cannabis. … Just a lot of people that just want to be able to use the plant without losing their job or their access to a firearm or worrying about a criminal charge. You name it. It’s just county after county.

And I was just really surprised that there just wasn’t a look or a gender or an age that was like, oh, they’re definitely for, or they’re definitely against it. It’s just all walks of life.

Capital-Star: I’m curious to know in all of these tours, did anything you heard or learn from anyone change your thinking on this subject?

Fetterman: I don’t know if it changed me, but I’m convinced that Pennsylvanians — whether they want it reluctantly or [if] they see it as inevitable, or those that are enthusiastic — like control, like rigid control through like a state store system. Nobody wants cannabis marketed aggressively and they are deathly afraid of it falling in the hands of young people. They believe, and research seems to document, that it has an adverse effect on developing brains.

There is a real fear, even among those that are for it, [about] edibles, particularly around children.

I didn’t hear any strong support like, hey, let’s bring it on with the edibles.

Capital-Star: I’m sure you don’t know this off the top of your head, but do you know roughly how many tours, how many stops you were joined by representatives from those areas? [The lieutenant governor’s office invited state lawmakers from each county to the events.]

I don’t have an exact number, but I can confidently say it was the majority of them. In fact, there were many counties, several counties that all … commissioners joined me and these were the small rural ones.

We had good participation across the board. And as was always the case, if there was a legislator or even a commissioner who felt really strongly [that] they wanted to speak and share their views, it’s like, here’s the microphone. It was very open in that regard. There wasn’t anybody that participated that left that meeting saying like, “wow, I really felt like you steered the conversation.”

The conversation was steered entirely by the individuals that showed up there to talk.

Capital-Star: Yeah, I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a public event where it’s completely guided by people just getting up to the microphone and being able to talk basically at you.

Fetterman: Some people that were really opposed to it would sometimes bristle when people would mention medical marijuana or cannabis. And I would always say that that’s completely fine to talk about, because everybody’s view on cannabis comes from their own experiences. And [medical marijuana] can radically inform your take on recreational cannabis.

And again, I think the most remarkable thing that I heard, if I had to distill it down to one single thing, is how universally OK and accepting and embracing of medical marijuana that everybody is. I could literally tell you, fewer than five people in 67 counties had said, “I hate medical. I hate recreational. No way, no how.” You know, no more than five.

As you know, this [medical cannabis] was not a slam dunk. You know, this was contentious. This was, you know … you’re opening up Pandora’s box and all this other stuff — and that just wasn’t the case.

It is universally appreciated almost to get to the point of being unanimous.

Capital-Star: What happens next?

Fetterman: Well, we begin to codify the narrative of what happened on this tour. You know, the key takeaways, the information through all the comment cards, the 30,000-plus online responses, and create a report that’s submitted to the governor and that’ll be distributed to everybody in Pennsylvania to draw their own opinions.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Americans don’t have to like cannabis, but they should hate its prohibition. This prohibition law strikes at the very foundation of our society. It is a tool of tyrants, used to violate core American beliefs and nearly every aspect of the Bill of Rights.

    A populace that accepts and becomes accustom to overreaching government policies, such as the prohibition of relatively safe, popular substances, becomes more accepting of overreaching, powerful government in general. This devastates America, not a plant that has been used by mankind since the beginning of recorded history.

    Those who believe in limited government, personal responsibility, free markets, and individual liberty should embrace the ending of this irrational, un-American, fraudulently enacted cannabis prohibition experiment. It should be the cornerstone of current GOP policy.

    Federal studies show about half of the U.S. population has tried cannabis, at least 15% use it regularly, over 80% of high school seniors have reported cannabis “easy to get” for decades. This prohibition, like alcohol prohibition, has had little of its intended effect. In many cases cannabis prohibition makes cannabis usage problematic where it would not have been otherwise, be it light, moderate, or heavy usage. For the most part, cannabis prohibition only successfully prohibits effective regulation.

    A few issues created by prohibition: there are no quality controls to reduce contaminants (harmful pesticides, molds, fungus, other drugs), there is no practical way to prevent regular underage sales, billions in tax revenue are lost which can be used for all substance abuse treatment and other programs, underground markets for all drugs are empowered as a far more popular substance is placed within them expanding their reach and increasing their profits, criminal records make pursuing many decent careers difficult, police and court resources are unnecessarily tied up by pursuing and prosecuting victimless ‘crimes’, public mistrust and disrespect for our legal system, police, and government is increased, which is devastating our country.

    Prohibition is also very expensive, though, a cash cow for a number of powerful groups such as those related to law enforcement and the prison industry. These organizations have powerful lobbies and influence that perpetuate a failed drug policy through ignorance, fear, disinformation and misinformation. This ensures an endless supply of lucrative contracts, grants and subsidies from the government and its taxpayers to support their salaries, tools of the trade, ‘correctional’ services, and other expenses. Cash, property and other assets from civil forfeiture laws also significantly fatten their coffers while often violating civil rights.

    America was built on the principles of freedom and liberty. In some cases there are extreme circumstances that warrant intervention with criminal law. In the case of mind-altering drugs we have already set this precedent with alcohol. Cannabis is less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and especially to others. If we are to have justice, then the penalties for using, possessing and selling cannabis should be no worse than those of alcohol.

    Regardless of legal status, a large market for cannabis will continue to exist as it has for decades. Either the underground controls the market and profits from it, or the state does…all while ending their assault on our citizens. Let’s end this costly, futile attempt to eradicate a plant that a majority of Americans believe should be legal.

  2. RE: Exit Drug

    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):

    National Average
    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%)

    Colorado
    2012: 7.7
    2017: 10.0 (increased 30%)

    [SOURCE: Kaiser Family Foundation]

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

    National Average
    2012: 13.1
    2017: 21.7 (increased 66%)

    Pennsylvania
    2012: 19.0
    2017: 44.3 (increased 133%)

    Washington State
    2012: 13.7
    2017: 15.2 (increased 11%)

    Colorado
    2012: 15.0
    2017: 17.6 (increased 17%)

    [SOURCE: Kaiser Family Foundation]

    Studies have shown that cannabinoids can help treat those addicted to hard drugs, prescription drugs and alcohol, and that it is an “exit drug” for some.

    This recent study found cannabis helped people stop using opioids completely in 59.3% of instances; another 18.4% reported reducing opioid use by at least 75%:

    “increased regulated access to medical and recreational cannabis can result in a reduction in the use of and subsequent harms associated with opioids, alcohol, tobacco, and other substances”
    [Lucas et al. 2019]

    Legal medical cannabis has been shown to significantly reduce deaths from prescription opioid painkillers by reducing opioid use:

    “States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws.” [Bachhuber et al. 2014]

    Many other studies also support the notion that cannabis can be used as an ‘exit drug’: [Boehnke et al. 2016; Gruber et al. 2018; O’Connell TJ & Bou-Matar CB. 2007; Wiese B, Wilson-Poe AR. 2018; Reiman A. 2009]

  3. Sell this dope in PA state stores, behind the counter with the smaller bottles. At least the direct distribution to minors would be less likely. Also, the state could gain some revenue to offset the future problems and enforcement.

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