'Listening tour' stop over legalization of marijuana sparks up debate

David Santa (left) and Eric Miller (second from left) talk with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman after his “listening session” regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania at Penn Highlands Community College in Richland Township on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019.

Toward the end of a town hall at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College on Tuesday, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman asked audience members if they favored, opposed or remained undecided about legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use in Pennsylvania.

With a show of hands and a chorus of “ayes,” what unofficially looked to be about two-thirds or more of the individuals offered their support for the idea, as the vote was video recorded.

“It was an up-or-down,” said Fetterman, a first-term Democrat, who has held similar events elsewhere in the state. 

“We do that in every county, so the people of Pennsylvania can say, ‘Well, what was it like in Johnstown?’ And you can see the room. You can see the room in Warren. You can see the room in Montgomery County. All these different places. So people can see that it was a true, transparent process. It was an open invitation – open to the public.”

The event was the latest stop in the lieutenant governor’s tour during which he plans to hold listening sessions in every one of the commonwealth’s 67 counties to receive input, which he then plans to present to Gov. Tom Wolf.

“Everyone’s voice is important,” Fetterman said. “Every county’s viewpoint is important. This is a true listening tour. This isn’t going to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or a major city. This is about going to each and every county. And Cambria is a vitally critical county. Coming here is part of the responsibility and the job when you’re talking about an issue that is as critical to so many Pennsylvanians.”

He was joined on stage by state Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Ferndale, and state Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, who each complimented Fetterman for getting comments from citizens.

“I’m here just as a member of the community to find out what their concerns are,” Burns said. “This is a listening town hall, so the governor’s office is gathering data and input from people around the state. And they’re going to see the concerns of all citizens from rural areas, from urban areas and try to come up with the best plan of action moving forward for this.”

Burns said he is still learning about the issue.

Rigby said he supports medical marijuana, but currently opposes legalizing the drug for recreational purposes. 

“I still don’t think we have enough information for recreational use,” Rigby said.

About three dozen individuals spoke during the forum, with 2-to-1 favoring legalization.

“Let’s just look at the facts here,” said David Santa, a Westmont resident. “Let’s not give our opinions. Let’s look at the facts. And the facts are people with marijuana are not violent. They can get up and go to work the next day without a hangover. There are a lot of benefits of it. If it’s how somebody chooses to unwind, then that’s the means they’re looking to do it. Drinking’s not for everybody.”

Ronna Yablonski, executive director of the Cambria County Drug Coalition, spoke in opposition, raising concerns about the potency of modern marijuana compared to years past, mental illness, increased youth use and impaired driving.

“I believe that this is an issue that we cannot take lightly,” Yablonski said. “It’s something that we are seriously concerned about.” 

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.