It’s no secret that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman wants to legalize recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania.
It’s not because, as he said some of his critics suggest, that he’s a stoner looking for some better quality pot.
“I don’t use marijuana,” Fetterman said in a Facebook Live conversation with PennLive Opinions Editor Joyce Davis on Tuesday. “I haven’t used marijuana. I’ll take a drug test if that’s what it takes.”
“You don’t have to use a substance in order to advocate that it should be safe, legal, regulated, taxed for the benefit of everybody and available to any adult that wants to use it safely in the privacy and comfort of their own home in a responsible way,” he said.
During the hour-long conversation, Fetterman said his statewide listening tour last year made it clear that a majority of Pennsylvanians favor recreational adult use marijuana for a variety of reasons. That conclusion has led Gov. Tom Wolf to urge state lawmakers to legalize it as well.
House and Senate Republican leaders, however, have said they do not share the position that this is a priority for Pennsylvania right now. Neither of the GOP-controlled chambers is planning to move cannabis legalization bills this fall, although two bills are sitting in the House and one is in the Senate.
Fetterman hasn’t taken a position on any particular bill, although he would like the one that reaches the governor’s desk to include expungement of low-level marijuana convictions.
“I support the bill that would get through the Pennsylvania Legislature and whatever that looks like because that’s the reality in Harrisburg,” he said. “It’s got to be bipartisan and the underlying dynamics is that cannabis is very bipartisan.”
He also said movement on this issue in Pennsylvania could come if the Democrats’ prevail at the federal level in November, which he predicts would lead to legalization and decriminalization and removal of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug.
“Then you are going to have a supernova of development across the country,” he said. “I would rather not be behind on that.”
In terms of revenue, Fetterman estimates conservatively, it would generate $250 million a year in revenue for the state, which is about half of what Auditor General Eugene DePasquale had projected it would bring in to state coffers. Over 20 years, Fetterman said that’s $5 billion.
Right now, he said, “we’re getting zero.”
“What could that revenue do for our commonwealth?” he said. “We have a thriving cannabis market within Pennsylvania already. It’s just illegal. And all of the revenue and all of that is going to drug cartels and we are left with criminality. We are left with unknown purity levels. We are left with a sales force, for lack of a better phrase, that sells a lot of addictive and truly harmful substances.”
But Dan Bartkowiak, a spokesman for the conservative Pennsylvania Family Institute & Council, said legalized marijuana also carries a cost that Fetterman and Wolf seem to overlook when looking at it as a revenue generator.
“Fetterman and Wolf do not calculate any of the new expenses and harms that would come with the full legalization and commercialization of marijuana. No state has met their revenue projections and Pennsylvania officials relying upon a pre-COVID report made by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale for revenue projections — which adds a 35-percent sales tax — is not only irresponsible but would be welcomed by the black market,” Bartkowiak said.
He added Illinois Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton said on a recent call organized by Fetterman that tax revenue should not be the reason to push for legalization.
Aside from the revenue argument, Fetterman said there’s the social justice issues it would address, jobs it could create, the prospect of a new cash crop for farmers, and the desire for Pennsylvania to reap the revenue from it instead of neighboring states. He said with the expectation that New Jersey residents will vote to legalize it in their state in the November election, 40% of Pennsylvania’s population will be within an hour’s drive of legal cannabis.
“Legalizing cannabis is the right side of history,” he said. “It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.”
He said teen use in the 11 jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis has dropped because its sale is regulated. When challenged on that point with data from Britannica ProCon that states 16.21% of Colorado’s 12- to 17-year-olds and 18% of Alaska teens in that age group reported using marijuana, Fetterman said he doesn’t subscribe to those numbers and suggested other studies tell a different story.
Throughout the conversation, Fetterman frequently brought up the point that legalizing pot is no more dangerous or harmful to people than alcohol, tobacco, firearms and gambling. It’s also not as addictive as opiates that doctors readily prescribed for years.
“Here is the truth about cannabis: No overdose deaths ever have been medically reported. It is not addictive physically and it is a plant,” the lieutenant governor said. “You can grow it in your yard like a tomato plant. This idea that it’s an insidious narcotic is just simply reefer madness and that’s really the last thing prohibitionists are clinging to at this point.”
He said the cannabis market is flourishing in Pennsylvania through the black market and it comes with many unknowns as far as what its purity level is, what it is grown in, and whether it’s laced with some harmful substance. Legalization and regulations would take away those with unknowns from those who choose to use it.
Bartkowiak pointed out many mainstream health and safety organizations oppose legalizing marijuana. The American Academy of Pediatrics is opposed to full marijuana legalization because it “would create an industry to commercialize and market marijuana, which would be harmful for children,” he said.
Likewise, the American Medical Association is opposed to the sale of marijuana for recreational use because marijuana “is a dangerous drug and as such is a serious public health concern.” And the American Automobile Association (AAA) is also opposed to full legalization because of “its inherent traffic safety risks.”
Rather than working to help people with their ailments through the state’s medical marijuana program or a separate discussion on decriminalization, Bartkowiak said Wolf and Fetterman want full commercialization of high-strength marijuana that will include marketing that appeals to children.
“The health and safety of our children will no longer be a priority while marijuana gummy bears, marijuana ice creams and weed vape pens with highly-potent marijuana oils in flavors like Strawberry Cough are marketed on social media and being sold in more stores than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined – which is what happens in states that legalize it,” Bartkowiak said. “That’s why recreational marijuana should never be a priority for Pennsylvania.”
Fetterman’s response to that is it likely will soon be legalized in New Jersey and he suspects New York and other states will follow suit. Besides that, Fetterman said those health and safety organizations are acting like marijuana is something new.
“It’s already in the world. It’s everywhere,” he said. “This idea that it’s going to somehow harm society… just isn’t true.”
Jan Murphy may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.