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Lt. Gov. John Fetterman Talks Recreational Marijuana In Allegheny County

Ariel Worthy
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman speaks to residents at the Community Empowerment Association in Homewood.

"All of those in favor of adult recreational cannabis use in Pennsylvania, raise your hand and please say aye," Lt. Gov. John Fetterman asked a Pittsburgh crowd. 

Most hands went up in the room, joined by a collective, "aye." 

"All those oppose, 'no I do not support,' (raise your hand),"

A single hand raised. 

"I want to salute her because it takes courage to stand up in a room full of people that you disagree with and that's what this tour is all about, so thank you for sharing your views on that," Fetterman said. 

Fetterman made it to Allegheny County, the 62nd county, he says, in his recreational marijuana listening tour. Fetterman listened to residents at the Community Empowerment Association in Homewood on Saturday afternoon, and then again a couple of hours later at the Wunderly Gymnasium at Penn State Greater Allegheny. 

Kirsten Ennis is a home school teacher from Ross Township, the only Pittsburgh attendee who opposed recreational marijuana legalization, and she said she attended because she is concerned about what the public doesn't know about marijuana legalization. 

"I think there's enough statistical information from states that have legalized recreational marijuana and we can look at that and see that Pennsylvania would not benefit," Ennis said. "The money that's coming in from the companies, they'll benefit and pay their taxes, but it's on the back of the citizens who will suffer from the legalization of recreational marijuana. You'll have addictions, you'll have drugs."

Ennis said she believes that recreational marijuana legalization would have similar impacts like legalized gambling. 

"Before there was legalized gambling you didn't see signs that said 'Gambling problem, call this number.' There's this whole extra addendum and industry for gambling addicts," she said. "What do you think it's going to be for marijuana addicts? If it's easier to obtain and legal, that's just going to make the use go up."

Ennis said though marijuana is currently legalized for medical use, she believes there should be more research about its health benefits.  

Most attendees spoke about the medical benefits of cannabis, many being medical marijuana cardholders. Residents gave personal testimonies about health issues including glaucoma, fibromyalgia, seizures, anxiety and chronic pain, and how marijuana has helped them. Nancy Black is 71 years old and she says she used to staunchly oppose marijuana use. 

"I felt that I was a role model and it was illegal and I didn't want to do it," she said. 

Black said she has a few health issues, including fibromyalgia, arthritis and an autoimmune disease. She decided to stop taking opioids after her grandson, Shane Murphy, convinced her to get a medical marijuana card after its legalization. 

"I was taking opioids every twelve hours," she said. "I made up my mind that I didn't think it was doing what it was supposed to do so ... I said I want to get my medical marijuana card." 

Black said because she has asthma she doesn't smoke marijuana, but she does use the pain patches, lotion and cannabis oils. She said since she started using marijuana products, she has changed her mind. 

"This is not poison," she said. "But I recognize our jails are full of people who shouldn't be there. Those people are not criminals." 

Across town, Fetterman met with residents at Penn State Greater Allegheny County. While McKeesport mostly supported legalization, more residents spoke against it. Former Congressman Keith Rothfus said he believes marijuana is an addictive substance and the law doesn't need to be changed. However, Rothfus said he does support medical marijuana and decriminalizing the drug.

"I support efforts to do more research (on medical marijuana)," Rothfus said. "But that doesn't mean we go full scale legalization. I'm all for criminal justice reform ... we have to be aware of the issues in certain communities about incarceration. But that's a different issue; we can address that through other kinds of reforms. But that doesn't include a full scale legalization." 

Patrick Nightingale is a criminal defense attorney, executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the  National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and a cannabis reform activist.  He says he supports Fetterman's listening tour. Realistically, he said he does not believe this legislative session will legalize it.

"It's clear they are not ready to address this," Nightingale said. "What we do think we have a very good chance of moving forward with is decriminalization. At the very least take the criminal component away from prohibition." 

Fetterman said there have been some rural counties that widely opposed its legalization, but even in those counties there was still a significant amount who support it. Fetterman will go to five more counties— Carbon, Potter, Bucks, Cameron and Philadelphia—and conclude the tour on May 19.