UPJ pot forum

Taking part in a forum on legalizing adult-use marijuana Monday, Dec. 2, 2019,  at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown are (from left) Lt. Gov. John Fetterman; Jeff Thomas, Somerset County District Attorney-elect; and Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor David Yerger.

As perhaps the state’s highest-profile advocate for legalizing adult-use marijuana, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman described the rationale behind the idea as one of dollars and “common sense” Monday.

“Right now, there’s already a cannabis market – but it’s illegal, unsafe and untested,” Fetterman said, noting that the revenue from it is going to drug cartels. “What I’m saying is, let’s make it as safe, pure and regulated as possible ... in a way that directs the funds from it to areas that will benefit society.”

To Somerset County’s next district attorney, Jeff Thomas, it’s a potential Pandora’s box.

The promise of revenue sounds great, at first, Thomas countered, but there’ll also be a price tag for the “massive level of detrimental effects on society.”

Both men shared their views on the topic alongside Somerset County Single County Authority Director Erin Howsare and Indiana University of Pennsylvania professor David Yerger as part of a town hall-style forum at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown on Monday, at a time Pennsylvania lawmakers are weighing the idea.

WJAC-TV organized the event as part of a Town Hall on recreational pot. Approximately 25 people attended – with a number of them penciling in questions about the potential economic impact of adult-use legalization and hurdles to the idea.

Howsare said her biggest concern is that legalizing marijuana will open the gate for a billion-dollar industry to target and tempt the state’s youngest age groups – much like it has with alcohol and cigarettes.

There’ll be consequences, she said. And it’ll be up to a broad spectrum of agencies, including single county drug and alcohol treatment authorities like her’s to try to get them help, Howsare added.

Marijuana might not end lives such as heroin and fentanyl, but it can ruin them, she said, noting it can lead to mental health and developmental issues.

“We shouldn’t be making it easier for people to get high,” Thomas added.

Fetterman said people across the country already have easy access to the drug.

And while many people use the drug responsibly, there will be people who’ll make bad decisions – like getting behind the wheel of a car – whether it’s illegal or government-regulated.

He noted he’ll continue to urge his own children to avoid the substance.

“But if they are going to use it, I’d rather it be from a safe, pure source – not from some guy on a street corner,” he said.

Fetterman pointed to the benefits Colorado has seen – 18,000 industry jobs and $250 million in annual revenue.

The state is half Pennsylvania’s size – and if lawmakers take action quickly enough, the Commonwealth could see higher returns, he said.

“Cannabis is a bipartisan issue,” Fetterman said. “And we’re surrounded by a ring of states on the cusp of legalizing it. I’d rather lead the pack in the Northeast than be a follower – a Johnny-come-lately.”

In economics, there’s always a trade-off when venturing into new territory, Yerger said.

“The goal is always to try to understand those trade-offs” to weigh the risk versus rewards, he added.

The financial benefits to legalizing the substance add up quickly.

“But the difficulty is (with legalization only dating back seven years), we’re only just starting to get public health data,” Yerger said. “There’s still a lot we don’t know.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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