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.