Fetterman and Kim

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman talks with state Rep. Patty Kim on stage in Harrisburg on Monday, Feb. 11, 2018, at the beginning of his first stop on a statewide listening tour to explore the issue of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

HARRISBURG – Lt.  Gov. John Fetterman launched his 67-county listening tour to hear what Pennsylvanians have to say about legalizing marijuana on Monday night.

If the first event is any indication, he’s going to get an earful.

More than 100 people attended the event, and the majority of speakers said they support legalizing the use of marijuana for recreational purposes by adults.

Proponents said legalizing the drug would eliminate the prosecution of minor drug possession that can leave marijuana users with hefty court costs. Proponents also touted the benefits of medical marijuana and said legalizing the drug more broadly would allow Pennsylvanians with other health problems not covered by the state’s medical marijuana law to seek relief with the drug. Some who spoke in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use added that the state should use tax revenue from recreational marijuana to subsidize the cost of medical marijuana to make it more affordable for those who need it for health reasons.

Opponents said the state shouldn’t move to legalize the drug for potential tax revenue when it’s not clear that important policy issues related to regulating the industry have been figured out.

Pennsylvania is one of 33 states that allow marijuana to be used for medical reasons. Ten states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington – have legalized recreational use of the drug. Proposals to legalize recreational marijuana are expected to move in the state capitols in New York and New Jersey, soon, as well. That was a trend Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf noted in suggesting it’s time for Pennsylvania to examine the issue.

While Wolf is now in his second term, Fetterman was just elected lieutenant governor in November after beating Mike Stack in the May primary. Fetterman was previously the mayor of Braddock, a borough near Pittsburgh. Fetterman has said he became interested in the issue of legalizing marijuana while serving as Braddock mayor. In that role, he’d seen how the existing laws were unfair because minority youths are more likely to be arrested on minor drug charges than white youths.

Monday night, Fetterman kicked off the listening tour by telling attendees he wasn’t going to use the event to share his opinions on the matter.

“What I think is not interesting,” he said. 

Les Stark, executive director of the Keystone Cannabis Coalition, an advocacy group lobbying for legalization of marijuana, was the first to step forward. He called legalization an opportunity to helped Pennsylvanians “crushed by hurtful laws” that have had “devastating” effects on their lives.

He added that as neighboring states, including New York, New Jersey and Delaware, appear poised to legalize marijuana for recreational use, Pennsylvania will likely soon be “flooded” with legally purchased cannabis whether the state legalizes its use or not.

Failing to act as neighboring states do, would be a “cruel, obstinate joke,” Stark said.

Kevin Evans, a Hershey-based consultant working in the cannabis industry, said he was in Colorado when recreational marijuana was legalized in that state.

He said the Colorado experience illustrated “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

The positive is that states stand to get tax revenue and they have the opportunity to avoid prosecuting people for minor drug crimes, something advocates for drug reform say too often unfairly targets minority groups. Evans said the “bad” experience in Colorado was increased marijuana use by juveniles as adult recreational use was legalized.

The “ugly,” he added, was that there were rare cases of marijuana addiction that have gotten too little attention.

In all, though, he said the benefits of legalizing marijuana outweigh the negative aspects of the move. Like Stark, he said there will be tremendous pressure on Pennsylvania to legalize recreational use of marijuana if neighboring states open the doors to it. In that case, it Pennsylvania would be legalizing the drug “defensively” out of fear that tax revenue would be going to New York and New Jersey that could stay in this state, he said.

While most who spoke at the event supported legalizing marijuana, not everyone did.

Mary Slade, of Steelton, Dauphin County, said if the drug is legalized, the state needs to be prepared to use tax revenue from marijuana sales to increase funding for police and create sensible laws regarding where and how the drug can be used.

If the state doesn’t provide funding for police and local communities need to respond on their own, “My taxes are going to go up and I’m not going to be happy,” she said.

Mariana Horowitz said she’s a social worker and she opposes the legalizing of marijuana because the state’s existing drug treatment facilities don’t have the capacity to respond effectively if there is an increase in drug abuse by juveniles.

Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, a Fetterman spokeswoman, said that the lieutenant governor intends to have his 67-county tour wrapped up by the middle of June.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.