If Wednesday night was any indication, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman may need to find bigger venues for his town hall events on marijuana legalization.
The meeting hall at American Legion Post 109 in Mechanicsburg was filled to capacity, with a standing room only crowd of about 200 people, for Fetterman’s third stop in a statewide listening tour. Dozens of potential attendees had to be turned away at the door by Legion staff.
Fetterman was clearly pleased with the turnout and feedback relatively early in the tour. He said he plans to hold events in all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties by the end of June.
“This is a great representation, civil and participatory,” Fetterman said. “We want to hear what people have to say. I don’t want to sound corny, but this is democracy at its core.”
By a show of hands at the end of the night, and by a count of those who spoke, about 70 percent of the crowd favored some form of legalized recreational marijuana.
Those in attendance were skewed toward an older demographic. With very few exceptions, younger participants strongly favored legalization.
Gov. Tom Wolf, while a supporter of Pennsylvania’s 2016 medical marijuana law, had expressed hesitancy toward further legalization. But in December, Wolf said it was “time to take a serious and honest look” at legalized recreational marijuana, and announced last month that Fetterman would embark on a listening tour to gauge public opinion.
Fetterman has voiced support for legalization, but said his listening tour has nothing to do with his personal position.
“My opinions aren’t interesting,” Fetterman said. “What you have to say is interesting.”
The most common point made by supporters of legalization was that marijuana is less harmful — and potentially a safer alternative — to other drugs.
“I have treated alcoholics, heroin addicts, crack addicts, methamphetamine, all of those drugs. Marijuana is the least harmful,” said Russ Matthews of Mechanicsburg, a professional addiction counselor. “I believe we are making criminals out of innocent people, and it does not need to happen.”
Many residents also said that they used marijuana for pain relief, treatment of psychiatric problems, or other illnesses, including one woman who used the drug to treat multiple sclerosis. Many said their experiences with marijuana were much better than with legal prescription drugs, particularly opioid painkillers.
Many of these people also said that Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana system was still too restrictive, and it was cheaper and easier to get the drug on the street, rather than having to pay hundreds of dollars to be verified by a doctor and registered with state-approved medical dispensaries.
In places that have fully legalized, prices for marijuana are a fraction of what is allowed by Pennsylvania’s medical system, which tightly controls the number of suppliers, proponents said.
Several speakers also said the state should get ahead of the potential economic boom from the cannabis industry, although they cautioned that the state should not over-tax legalized marijuana for risk of limiting access for lower-income people who may need it. The state Auditor General’s Office projected earlier this year that Pennsylvania could see $581 million in annual revenue from legalization, although this assumes a net tax rate of 35 percent.
Revenues could be used for infrastructure or other initiatives, participants said. Although Wednesday’s crowd was almost entirely white, one speaker was applauded for suggesting funds be used for programs in minority communities that have been adversely impacted by past “war on drugs” policies.
Those residents who were opposed to legalization shared stories about marijuana as a gateway drug, with friends and family members who moved on from smoking pot to using narcotics. But others contended that this was not an issue with marijuana per se.
“The top two reasons people go from marijuana to harder drugs, number one is drug testing. Marijuana stays in your system almost a month. Cocaine is out in a few days, LSD you can’t test for,” said Rachel Henry of New Cumberland, who said she works in the judicial system.
“Number two, they have a dealer who says ‘why don’t you try this instead,’” Henry said. “The reason it’s a gateway drug is because it’s illegal.”
However, a number of speakers questioned what impact marijuana legalization would have on traffic accidents. Studies from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have shown that states that have legalized marijuana have seen a five to six percent increase in crash rates.
“When you’re using pot and you introduce alcohol into that equation … that increases impairment on the highways,” said Stewart Graham of Carlisle.
Tom Joerg of Mechanicsburg, who said he supported legalization in principle, said the state would first need to figure out a way to incorporate marijuana use into its traffic laws.
“Legalized marijuana is a great idea, but you would have to tweak the laws so everyone isn’t driving around illegally,” Joerg said.
Currently, Joerg said, police consider anyone who tests positive for tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis, to be legally impaired. But current tests can’t tell if the person used marijuana an hour ago or a month ago, and can’t conclusively judge how impaired they might be, given that THC stays in the body long after the psychoactive effect has worn off.
Others questioned what the minimum age for recreational use would be, if the state were to go in that direction. One speaker suggested age 25, citing medical evidence that this is the age by which the human brain is fully developed.
Critics of legalization also said the state was flying in the dark on the long-term effects, with limited research on the effect of second-hand smoke on children.
“We do know enough to know that there are impacts on children’s IQ levels,” said Gail Viscome, a native of Carlisle who now works with Elizabethtown Area Communities That Care and the Commonwealth Prevention Alliance.