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Meet the lieutenant governor pushing Democrats to get serious about weed

Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman thinks legalization is the biggest popular issue no one wants to take on

Photo illustration by William Joel / The Verge | Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In the wake of the 2020 election, Democrats are looking for answers — and if you ask John Fetterman, the answer is marijuana. Pennsylvania’s unorthodox Lieutenant Governor has established himself as a kind of unofficial spokesman for the state’s efforts to legalize the drug, both in his public statements and on his Twitter feed. And while the issue makes many politicians nervous, Fetterman is insistent that it’s far more popular than they realize.

“America wants this and is ready for this and has been ready for it,” Fetterman said in an interview with The Verge. “And no matter what it is that does it for you, whether it’s revenue, justice, jobs, freedom, farmers, veterans, there are so many reasons to support it. The only reason against it is this vestigial reefer madness.”

Fetterman is exasperated that neither Democrats nor Republicans seem to have the political will to make it happen, despite a recent groundswell of voter support. He and Governor Tom Wolf have repeatedly tried to push for state legislation in recent months, as it became clear neighboring New Jersey would soon pass a decriminalization bill of its own.

“We either do it now and take advantage of what we can do in Pennsylvania, or we’re going to lose a lot of revenue to our neighboring states,” Wolf said during an October press conference. Tax revenue from cannabis, Wolf argues, could prove invaluable for revitalizing Pennsylvania’s pandemic-ravaged economy. Leaders of the Republican-controlled state legislature however, have called legalizing recreational pot “reckless and irresponsible.”

Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana in 2016 and opened its first dispensaries in 2018, but the drug is still illegal without a doctor’s approval. But as legalization gains ground across the country, there’s increasing pressure on states like Pennsylvania. As of this writing, medical marijuana is legal in 35 states; recreational weed is legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia, despite remaining illegal at the federal level.

“the unambiguous winner in November of 2020 was weed.”

When he ran in the Senate primary in 2016, Fetterman says he was the only candidate nationally calling for legalization, a cause he has pushed in some form or other ever since.

“I don’t shrink away or call it ‘unfortunate’ or something,” he says of his party’s position on cannabis. “Thank goodness that Trump wasn’t savvy enough to say, ‘you know, what? legal weed!’ They can argue about what happened in the election in 2020. But the unambiguous winner in November of 2020 was weed.”

Indeed, in every state where marijuana legalization was on the ballot this year, people voted in favor. Arizona, Montana, and New Jersey voted to approve recreational cannabis sales to people 21 and over, while Mississippi voted to approved medical marijuana use. And perhaps even more significantly, the measures in Arizona and Montana both called for past marijuana-related crimes to be expunged from people’s records.

Had President Trump prioritized legalization, Fetterman adds, he thinks the 2020 election would have turned out much worse for Democrats. “I think if Trump would have legalized weed and would have made a push for for pardons, and totally upended it and removed prohibition, I think he would have actually won quite handily.”

Legalizing marijuana is not a new subject for Fetterman, who says he uses over-the-counter, THC-free CBD gummies and ointments for aches and pains and general well-being but does not smoke marijuana himself.

“I am honestly incensed that this was kept from me for my entire life because of reefer madness.”

“I am honestly incensed that this was kept from me for my entire life because of reefer madness,” he says. “And I find my outrage directed at the medical community too, that had no qualms about unleashing the Kraken on the American people with Oxycontin and opioids.”

Before he was elected lieutenant governor, Fetterman, who holds a master’s in public policy from Harvard and is known for his trademark wardrobe of a gray work shirt and cargo shorts, spent 13 years as the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The job paid $150 a year in a community where 35 percent of people live below the poverty line. He and his wife, Gisele, still live in Braddock with their three kids, and even though he holds statewide office now, Fetterman carries reminders of the borough on his skin. He has Braddock’s zip code tattooed on his left arm, and his right arm has the dates of nine of the ten homicides that occurred in Braddock during his tenure.

In the summer of 2019, Fetterman went on a listening tour across the commonwealth, visiting all 67 counties to find out whether there was in fact widespread support for legalizing recreational weed.

“It was an earnest, goodwill, full on conversation, and by far the most interactive discussion of a public policy topic in Pennsylvania’s history, without a doubt,” he says. “And you know, I’m smart enough to know how to read an electoral map and I could have picked which counties I wanted. But I wanted to hear from everybody.”

According to the report complied from Fetterman’s listening tour, 65 to 70 percent of Pennsylvanians said they approved of adult-use cannabis legalization. “And that’s what’s so crazy about it, is that there are so many what we call mainline Republicans in Pennsylvania that would love to just sit in their backyard by their fire pit after a long day and just take the edge off with a vape pen of weed,” he said. 

And, he notes, Pennsylvania already has a thriving weed market, albeit an illegal one. “It’s a shit show, and it creates all kinds of externalities that people, especially people of color, are ground up by. And that needs to change,” he says. “We need to figure out a mechanism that balances the freedom and the distribution of it with the acknowledgement that it needs to generate revenue that can be used for the greater good.”

The Biden administration would leave it up to states to decide on legalizing recreational weed

Some of that enthusiasm has trickled up to the national level. The official 2020 Democratic Party platform calls for decriminalizing marijuana use via executive action and supports legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, but it leaves it up to states to decide whether to legalize weed for recreational use. During the campaign, President-elect Joe Biden called for decriminalizing cannabis use, expunging prior convictions, and taking cannabis off the schedule 1 drug list — which includes heroin and LSD — to allow research. But Biden would leave decisions about whether to legalize recreational marijuana up to states.

Previous decriminalization bills have stalled out in Congress, with the Democratic-led House putting forth legislation only to see it die in the Senate. The House tried again to include banking reform for marijuana companies in a second coronavirus relief package in August, but the Trump administration and Senate Republicans balked. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scoffed that the bill “mentions the word cannabis 68 times, more than the words jobs or hire are mentioned in the entire bill.”

The House is expected to vote this week on a bill that would remove marijuana from the controlled substances list. The MORE Act, introduced by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), would effectively eliminate marijuana prohibition and require that federal courts expunge prior marijuana arrests from people’s criminal records. But getting the bill through Congress would require buy-in from Senate Republicans, who are unlikely to play ball.

“weed helped a lot of people get through this pandemic.”

Given the gridlock at the federal level, Fetterman worries that national Democrats will leave drug policy on the back burner. “I think they’re going to say ‘we have other priorities,’” Fetterman says. “And I’m thinking, ‘no, no you don’t,’ because weed helped a lot of people get through this pandemic. And it would help a lot of other people dial back their addictions to other things like opioids and alcohol and other things. It’s really the perfect time for it. And all it involves is saying ‘yes.’”

Fetterman believes that Illinois — which opened its first dispensaries for recreational use in January — is a model for Pennsylvania to pursue full legalization. Sales of marijuana in Illinois are likely to surpass $1 billion in 2020, state officials say. Fetterman winces at what he sees as revenue left on the table in Pennsylvania; according to the auditor general, legal weed could bring $581 million a year into Pennsylvania’s coffers.

“I’m a realist, and it’s not like I can sit at a desk and craft [legislation] myself, this is going to have to involve by definition, the GOP,” Fetterman says. “And right now this is a party with its head in the sand trying to deny this even though they know we’re right about it. I don’t want the perfect to become the enemy of the good. But we’re not going to be able to get to where Illinois is anytime soon unless there’s a sea change in the Pennsylvania GOP mindset.”

Republicans in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, however, are currently preoccupied with the state of the presidential election and Trump’s attempts to overturn his loss. Fetterman has been a reliably vocal critic, mocking the president and the GOP on his Twitter account and in interviews. “The echo chamber on the other side is so desperate to find something to excite and mollify the snake handlers in the party,” he says. “And they know, there isn’t one person in leadership that honestly believes any of it. It’s all just carnival barking.”

Still, Fetterman thinks both parties share some of the blame for failing to legalize cannabis, and he is particularly incensed that the segments of the party responsible for putting Biden in the White House continue to bear the brunt of the effects of drug laws.

“the Democratic Party is to the right of South Dakota on legal weed, and it’s like, ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’”

“I find the Democrats’ platform on it cowardly, and, on the wrong side of history,” he said. “So the Democratic Party is to the right of South Dakota on legal weed, and it’s like, ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’” Fetterman says. “The Democratic Party owes its electoral success in this election to Black and brown communities. And they are disgustingly, disproportionately impacted by weed prohibition more than anybody.” 

Although he hasn’t committed to any specific race, observers think Fetterman is likely to run for Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA)’s Senate seat in 2022. (Toomey has said he won’t seek reelection.) That would put him in a much stronger position to advocate for permanent change to marijuana laws at the national level. But for now, he sees the issue of legalizing weed as an urgent matter for the Keystone State.

“Forty percent of our state is going to live a grocery store away from a Candyland of legal weed” in New Jersey, Fetterman said. “It’s inevitable. So you can either be rolled over by it or you can be a frontrunner.”