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

By: - May 21, 2019 6:30 am

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman addresses the crowd at the Pottsville listening tour (Capital-Star photo).

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.

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.