As the marijuana legalization movement presses forward, many eyes are turned to the Northeast, where legislative stalemates over reform have derailed several recent attempts to change state cannabis laws.
But in Pennsylvania, advocates are seeing clear signs that the tide is rapidly changing, with Gov. Tom Wolf (D) recently endorsing legalization and and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who spoke to Marijuana Moment in phone interview last week, helping to spearhead the fight to end prohibition.
Fetterman, who earned an endorsement from NORML last year and led a statewide listening tour this year to discuss the prospect of legalizing cannabis in the Keystone State, expanded on his reform vision and discussed his engagement with constituents on the issue, his online tiffs with prohibitionists and what he makes of former Vice President Joe Biden’s opposition to legalization.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: You headed a listening tour across Pennsylvania to talk about legalization plans with constituents. Were there any takeaways from that experience that resonated with you?
John Fetterman: There’s a lot that stood out to me. One of the things that really stood out to me is that this is a topic that everybody wants to talk about. Everybody. It’s something that everyone wants to get out, whether you’re in red country, Pennsylvania or whether you’re in super liberal, where-it’s-decriminalized, downtown Philadelphia—everybody wants to talk about it.
Adult cannabis prohibition is a minority viewpoint in Pennsylvania.
PA residents want PA cannabis grown on PA farms- creating PA jobs-generating PA tax revenue. https://t.co/xKmbVNjOLZ
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) October 2, 2019
Another thing that really struck out at me is how important access to cannabis is for veterans. Because of its Schedule I classification, they are prohibited from receiving it from the VA and we had veteran after veteran come to our meetings and often would end up in tears, just so frustrated because he or she would be like, “The one thing that I need more than anything is access to safe medical cannabis and I can’t.”
Those were two things that really struck out at me. Also, how non-issue it is. There are very few people that are like, “reefer madness, this is the devil’s tobacco” kind of mentality. Even if you’re not for it recreationally, I think very few people—in fact, no one that we could find—thinks that it’s appropriate to be on Schedule I or this idea that it’s in any way, shape or form comparable to hard drugs or dangerous drugs.
MM: Were you surprised at all when Gov. Wolf came out in support of adult-use legalization?
JF: I wasn’t because, you know what, the governor had the wisdom that the state needed to have a whole, comprehensive conversation. And I know the governor is always at the forefront of his views on what’s appropriate for Pennsylvania. It doesn’t surprise me at all. I was gratified, of course, but at the same time, not surprised because that’s the kind of governor he is, that’s why he was reelected by a significant majority and why I’m proud to be his running mate.
A super majority in PA wants to decriminalize cannabis, mass expungements, and removed from Schedule 1.
Without question, the current prohibition status quo on adult-use cannabis is now a truly marginal viewpoint in Pennsylvania.
Cannabis is Bipartisan.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) October 6, 2019
MM: What do you make of state Rep. Delloso’s proposed to implement a state-run cannabis market?
JF: I thank Representative Delloso because that’s one of the things that we did hear from a lot of people. It’s controversial to some, but we heard from a lot of people that we wanted strict access and people checking IDs and we didn’t want it to be like a JUUL where there’s a profit motive or incentive to marketers to sell. There’s a lot of appeal for a state-store system. What makes that possible in Pennsylvania is that we are one of only two states—I think Utah is the only other one—that controls the access of alcohol, so it’s a metaphor that Pennsylvanians are familiar with. I think it would be a channel that a lot of people that are either unsure or would otherwise oppose access to cannabis could actually support.
MM: Do you feel that, broader legalization aside, a more moderate decriminalization policy is achievable in the short term in the GOP-controlled legislature?
JF: I do. I do. I’ve got to tell you, no matter how somebody feels about legalization for recreational, there is universal support for decriminalization. I would say that to my more conservative or unconvinced colleagues, this is a jobs bill, this is a let-people-get-back-into-the-mainstream bill. If we can decriminalize this, we will literally save 25,000 people from going through the criminal justice system being charged on this. Law enforcement has better fish to fry, and I hear that from law enforcement. This isn’t anything radical. This is something that’s already embraced in some of our largest metropolitan areas in Pennsylvania. This is not radical. I hope that we can get to that point.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons why the governor laid that out. Even though he and I both support full legalization, decriminalization and mass expungement of low-level, non-violent arrests, I think, is a great point to begin with. It’s not controversial. Nobody is going to get their ears boxed back home in their district for talking about this, because that’s what we heard from all these different counties.
MM: You get into it with the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana (SAM) on social media from time to time. What do you make of them?
JF: I get into with them simply because having a conversation about it and then just getting to a point where I get frustrated when people deliberately conflate legal with harmless, and that’s just not the case. That’s my main point with SAM or anyone, where it’s like, look at all the substances in our world or things like lawnmowers or automobiles. They’re dangerous. People can and do die using them or consuming them, but they’re legal and being legal means it’s regulated and it’s taxed, or it’s made safer every year. Currently, we don’t have that with cannabis and cannabis needs to join the bastards of goods like alcohol and tobacco.
In a nation of legal:
Combined, kill/ harm 100’s of thousands every year, yet adult-use cannabis (ZERO overdose deaths) remains a societal bridge too far in Pennsylvania.
— John Fetterman (@JohnFetterman) October 6, 2019
I don’t know how an open, informed mind can simultaneously lobby for prohibition of cannabis but has no issue with legal tobacco or alcohol, when those two substances kill hundreds of thousands of people every year. Or opioid pills, pain pills. Or I forget how many people die from aspirin poisoning even. When you contrast that with zero overdose deaths with cannabis, I don’t know how anybody in good faith can argue those points simultaneously. That’s my main issue with SAM. I respect their right to having opinions and voicing them publicly, but it’s disingenuous to conflate legal with harmless.
MM: Do you think that some of the arguments in favor of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana do or should apply to other drugs?
JF: I’m just not ready to take on other drugs or anything. I think we need to get to a point in our society where we embrace cannabis legally, nationwide we get it off Schedule I and we right that ship and we stop criminalizing millions of people that partake in a substance that has zero overdose deaths, that many people use to medicate themselves for pain or traumatic stress, as my wife does—she’s a medical marijuana patient. Let’s get to that point.
I do support harm reduction, whether that’s safe injection sites. I’m all about having conversations where we can get to a safer, healthier place, and I think harm reduction is part of that conversation. It’s controversial in my state, with safe injection sites in Philadelphia, and I support that. But with respect to other drugs, we’re grappling with cannabis and that’s the way our conversation is going to stay at the moment.
MM: Former Vice President Joe Biden recently said he doesn’t support adult-use legalization, partly because he feels that marijuana may be a gateway drug. What’s your response?
JF: My response is the vice president is wholly entitled to his views as wrong as they are on marijuana. That seems like an odd hill to die on as a presidential Democratic candidate vying for nomination, but needless to say, I strenuously disagree with the vice president—both from a practical standpoint, but also politically, I don’t think it’s a very smart move either. It’s very 1997 in its view. I would respectfully urge the vice president to carefully reconsider his position on that.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gov. Tom Wolf.
American Medical Association Asks Mississippi Voters To Reject Medical Marijuana Ballot Initiative
A medical marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on Mississippi’s November ballot is being targeted by two medical associations that are pushing voters to reject the policy change.
With weeks left until the vote, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) and American Medical Association (AMA) are circulating a sample ballot that instructs voters on how to reject the activist-led measure. For supporters and opponents alike, the way the ballot is structured can be confusing—a product of the legislature approving an alternative that appears alongside Initiative 65.
“The purpose is to defeat Initiative 65. Initiative 65A will allow the legislature to enact changes to the law, which would not be possible with Initiative 65,” the opposition campaign document states. “MSMA is asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”
This marks the latest obstacle that reform advocates are facing as they work to inform the electorate about how to fill out the ballot to pass their proposal. Despite polls that show support for medical cannabis legalization at 81 percent in Mississippi, opponents aren’t acquiescing to public opinion.
MSMA President Mark Horne told WLBT-TV last week that the organization was asked to review the initiative and that “it was immediately clear that this is an effort focused on generating profits for an industry that has no ties to the medical or health care community in Mississippi.”
But according to Jamie Grantham, communications director for Mississippians for Compassionate Care (MCC), that talking point has only recently been aired and the campaign didn’t receive that feedback until MSMA mounted this opposition push. She told Marijuana Moment on Monday that the group’s steering committee is composed of several physicians who also had a hand in drafting the measure’s language—and that includes doctors who are part of MSMA.
“Ultimately, it boils down to patients being able to have access to this through their physician. They need to be able to have that conversation with them,” she said. “If certain physicians don’t see a benefit to that, that’s fine. But lots of other physicians do, and that’s evidenced undeniably in the 34 other states with medical marijuana programs where patients are receiving relief.”
AMA President Susan Bailey argued that “amending a state constitution to legalize an unproven drug is the wrong approach,” adding that there are concerns about youth exposure and impaired driving.
That said, a scientific journal published by AMA has printed research showing the advantages of broad marijuana legalization, however, with one recent study showing that people in states where recreational cannabis is legal were significantly less likely to experience vaping-related lung injuries than those in states where it is prohibited.
The organization has long maintained an opposition to legalization but has called for a review of marijuana’s restrictive federal Schedule I status.
Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA for comment, but a representative did not respond by the time of publication.
If the Mississippi campaign’s measure passes, it would allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
In June, lawmakers introduced yet another medical cannabis alternative resolution that would’ve posed an additional threat to the activist-driven reform initiative. But, to advocates’ relief, the legislation didn’t advance before lawmakers went home for the summer.
Nebraska Activists Unveil New Medical Marijuana Initiative For 2022 Following Supreme Court Defeat
Nebraska activists on Monday announced they are filing a new medical marijuana ballot initiative after an earlier version got shot down by the state Supreme Court this month.
The previous proposal had already collected enough signatures from voters and qualified for this November’s ballot, but a local sheriff filed a challenge, arguing that it violated the state’s single-subject rule that prohibits measures that deal with multiple issues. The secretary of state’s office rejected that claim, but the case went to court and a majority of justices ultimately ruled that the proposal would be removed from the ballot.
While advocates are disappointed that the state won’t have the opportunity to enact the policy change this year, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana didn’t waste any time putting together a new initiative that they feel will pass the single-subject test and appear on the 2022 ballot.
Language of the new proposal simply states: “Persons in the State of Nebraska shall have the right to cannabis in all its forms for medical purposes.”
Of course, that simplified text might satisfy the ballot policy, but it leaves an open questions about what—if any—regulated market would provide people with access to cannabis. It also doesn’t define eligibility, so that right to marijuana would appear to be unrestricted as long as person purports to use it for therapeutic reasons.
Those questions, if they remain unanswered by the campaign, could prove to be a sticking point for voters who would otherwise support regulated access to medical cannabis but might be uncomfortable with what could be a “free-for-all” situation that opponents have locked activists into with the single-subject challenge.
That said, the advocacy group says it plans to follow up the new simple constitutional amendment with “trailing statutory initiatives to set up a safe and secure medical cannabis system in Nebraska” if lawmakers fail to pass any medical marijuana legislation over the next year. That’s similar to how casino gaming supporters are pursuing their issue with companion constitutional and statutory ballot measures.
Under this year’s blocked initiative, physicians would have been able to recommend cannabis to patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions, and those patients would then have been allowed to possess, purchase and “discreetly” cultivate marijuana for personal use.
Sens. Anna Wishart (D) and Adam Morfeld (D), cochairs of Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, have tried for years to pass medical cannabis bills in the legislature only to be blocked by opposition from leadership.
Now, between the Supreme Court defeat and legislative inaction, they’re charting a new path.
“Families with loved ones suffering from conditions like epilepsy, PTSD, Parkinson’s, and cancer have fought for years to make medical cannabis safely accessible in our state as it is in 33 other states,” Wishart said in a press release. “This year over 190,000 Nebraskans successfully petitioned our government during a pandemic for that right, and despite receiving qualification from the Secretary of State, our initiative was removed from the ballot by a 5-2 vote from Nebraska’s Supreme Court. We will not give up and intend to bring this fight to the legislature in January with a bill that I will introduce and to the ballot in 2022.”
Morfeld added that the “new petition language indisputably presents a single subject and makes medical cannabis a constitutional right.”
“Then following with several statutory initiatives, we will establish a safe and regulated medical cannabis system,” he said. “Nebraskans have a constitutional right to petition their government, and we will not stop until they can exercise their right and have their voices heard on medical cannabis.”
— Senator Adam Morfeld (@Adam_Morfeld) September 28, 2020
While the timing isn’t ideal as far as advocates are concerned, given that presidential election years are typically targeted by cannabis reform supporters because of relatively larger turnout by supporters as compared to midterm cycles, 2022 is the next option they’re left with. That said, it’s possible that the continuing momentum for reform via the ballot could spur legislators to take up the issue in the meantime.
For what it’s worth, Nebraska’s attorney general said in an opinion last year that efforts to legalize medical marijuana in the state would be preempted by federal law and “would be, therefore, unconstitutional.”
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Top Illinois And Michigan Officials Give Marijuana Legalization Advice To Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor
The lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan recently gave their counterpart in Pennsylvania some advice on how to approach marijuana legalization in his state.
At a virtual forum on Thursday, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) put several questions to Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton (D) and Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist (D), asking for tips on how to navigate the policy change as legislators in his state consider his push to enact a legal cannabis system.
“What I hope that Pennsylvania can learn from Michigan is that you can do it right. You do not have to piecemeal this together,” Gilchrist said.
— Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (@FettermanLt) September 23, 2020
“When you do it in the right way, it sets you up to create the systems and infrastructure to truly support people as this comes online, to create opportunities for those who have been oppressed and cut out of opportunity because they’ve been incarcerated or criminalized in the system to be able to participate in the potential prosperity that adult-use cannabis can create for communities in a full and robust and inclusive way,” he said.
Fetterman said that, from his perspective, Illinois is “the gold standard of legalizing recreational cannabis” because of how it intentionally approached restorative justice and social equity through reform legislation.
Because Pennsylvania doesn’t have a process through which citizens can put initiatives on the ballot, he said he was especially interested in how Illinois crafted an effective cannabis system legislatively.
“We had looked at other states and what was happening in other states, when we did our homework, we realized that really none of the other states had really kind of approached this legislation or their efforts—I think we were the first to do it by legislation—with an intentional lens of equity,” Stratton, who purchased cannabis gummies at a dispensary on the state’s first day of legal sales, said. “As all of us know, if you’re not intentional about equity, it just doesn’t happen because of the systems and the systemic racism that we’ve talked about. It does not happen that you just end up with equity.”
“We are working towards making sure that those individuals that were from many of the communities most harmed by the war on drugs could have real opportunity. We’re working towards that,” she said. “We are repairing the harm of what generations of bad policy—including, again, the war on drugs—has done to these communities that are disproportionately black and brown.”
Stratton also emphasized that, under her state’s marijuana model, 25 percent of cannabis tax revenue goes toward restorative justice grants for disadvantaged communities. She also noted that Illinois has been consistently “breaking records with sales,” even during the coronavirus pandemic. That said, there have been some snags in implementing an equitable model of cannabis business licensing in the state, with several lawsuits filed over the results of a recent application scoring round.
Gilchrist jumped in to offer Fetterman another tip as Pennsylvania navigates through legalization legislation.
“There’s another element that I want to discuss that that perhaps is something that you should think about in Pennsylvania, and that is that kind of—I won’t call it consensus building per se—but that kind of real and robust and muscular set of community conversations and involvement in the design of implementation is really important,” he said.
He said it’s important to ensure that there’s “accessibility” to enter the industry and remove barriers that keep people from participating.
“You don’t want people to be designed out of these opportunities,” he said. “And sometimes that can happen, both unintentionally and intentionally.”
Fetterman ended the event by reflecting on the increasing bipartisan support around legalization, and both of his guests agreed that their experiences demonstrated as much.
He and Gov. Tom Wolf (D) have been regularly talking about the policy change in recent weeks. At a marijuana reform rally earlier this month, for example, both officials discussed their support for legalization and the need to stand up Pennsylvania’s market as more surrounding states pursue legal cannabis models.
Also this month, Wolf took a shot at the GOP-controlled legislature for failing to get the job done. He also floated the idea of passing a bill that would allow the state itself to sell the cannabis to consumers.
While Wolf initially opposed adult-use legalization, he came out in support of the policy change last year after Fetterman led a statewide listening tour last year to solicit public input on the issue.
Shortly after the governor announced that he was embracing the reform, a lawmaker filed a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model.
A majority of Senate Democrats sent Wolf a letter in July arguing that legislators should pursue the policy change in order to generate revenue to make up for losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.