By David Loomis
INDIANA – On substance, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s marijuana listening tour that barnstormed through Indiana County on Palm Sunday produced few surprises. Including the preaching.
Several churchmen spoke but none spoke in favor of the debate topic – “adult recreational marijuana Pennsylvania,” as the lieutenant governor short-handed it at the top of the hour and 45-minute discussion before an audience of about 200 at the Kovalchick center.
“Jesus is the answer,” concluded one clergyman from Clymer.
The same religious rejection has been recorded in the 38 counties Fetterman’s tour visited before arriving in Indiana on Sunday, en route to covering all 67 Pennsylvania counties by May 19.
“Not one clergyman has been in favor,” Fetterman reflected after the Indiana event adjourned.
The remark was offered not as critique but as a constituent specimen observed by a public-policy graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
OTHER THEMES raised in Indiana echoed talking points aired elsewhere, Fetterman said.
“There were no surprises here,” he summarized after adjourning:
Top five arguments opposing recreational marijuana:
1. It’s a gateway drug.
2. It impairs driving.
3. What about workplace drug-testing?
4. What about children?
5. It’s immoral.
Top five arguments supporting recreational marijuana:
1. It’s no different than alcohol or tobacco/adult responsibility/government regulation.
2. It’s a source of needed revenue.
3. Social justice/unequal enforcement/people of color
4. Decriminalization of minor offenses
5. Government regulation/state-store model
But popular support is strengthening, and Indiana County citizens exhibited it.
• Of the 40 citizens who queued up on Sunday evening to speak their allotted 90-second piece into the aisle microphones, 23 (57 percent) said they supported adult recreational marijuana in the commonwealth.
• By a show of hands at the end of the evening, 70 percent supported it, according to a Fetterman staff member who videotaped the hands and counted them for the record.
Such supermajorities are reflected in public opinion surveys that report broad and growing support for decriminalization or legalization – a “full Colorado,” as one Indiana critic called it on Sunday. The majorities are national and statewide.
And they are bipartisan. Fetterman noted that 55 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties lean Republican, leading listeners to the conclusion that Keystone State conservatives – like conservatives nationwide — increasingly support decriminalization or legalization of recreational marijuana.
Lacking such data, opponents at the Kovalchick center painted visions of a “gateway” to “carnage,” “moral decadence” and “dysfunction.” The remarks got applause.
“You could say milk is a gateway drug for alcoholics,” said one.
Another, a Vietnam War veteran and retired police officer, said alcohol was much worse than weed.
“Alcohol people always want to fight,” the cop observed. “Never for marijuana users.”
Both supporters drew appreciative laughter. Fetterman sat stone-faced but attentive.
ON STYLE, FETTERMAN showed how to lead a public discussion on a hot topic without inviting ad hominem attacks and long-winded tirades. It doesn’t hurt that he is an imposing figure at 6-feet-8-inches. It probably helps that he wore what one appreciative audience member described as a Fetterman uniform – an untucked black camp shirt and jeans. No suit.
But at the start he set crisp ground rules for engagement, and he practiced what he preached – concision, brevity, clarity and civility. (Clapping? OK. Booing? Not OK.)
And fact-checking. For example, a speaker at the end of the evening declared that Fetterman’s boss, Gov. Tom Wolf, already had his mind made up and that the listening tour was a “smokescreen.”
“I assure you he hasn’t made up his mind,” Fetterman interjected, adding a refrain that he was there to listen, not to lobby.
Another speaker demanded rhetorically, “What’s in the bill?” Fetterman again interjected. “There is no bill,” adding the refrain.
He offered succinct expressions of sympathy for several speakers who described personal health-care problems that marijuana could alleviate.
“I wish you well with your struggle,” he told a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy.
An IUP student froze in mid-sentence. Fetterman rose from the dais and descended to ask if she was OK. Yes, she said, just anxious. She finished and sat, to applause.
When a wireless mic went dead, Fetterman promptly rose and offered his own.
MARY CEASE, of Clymer, Indiana County’s poster child for increasingly irrational marijuana policies at the federal level, said she was pleased that the lieutenant governor provided a platform for her and others.
“He’s a compassionate and understanding man who cares about his constituents,” Cease said on Monday in a phone interview. “He wished me well with my court case.”
Cease said the positive vibe extended to Indiana County Commissioner Sherene Hess, who expressed regret that the county housing authority denied Cease a federal housing subsidy, Cease said. The 67-year-old Navy veteran has a legal Pennsylvania prescription for medical marijuana to get off opioids administered for chronic back pain, to aid recovery from back surgeries and to ease post-traumatic stress. But the feds’ reefer-madness rules classify pot as an equivalent of heroin. And for now, the feds rule.
Cease’s court case is not isolated. Gun owners face a similar Catch 22. So do merchants who sell CBD oil, a hemp derivative. As one Indiana speaker complained, the federal “reefer madness mentality” extends to banking regulations governing such commercial transactions.
This month, the federal Catch 22 may have begun to unravel. A bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress. A leading sponsor said President Trump would sign it into law. And Attorney General William Barr testified that he would prefer to let states legalize pot than to see them defy the feds’ prohibition policy, a situation he described as “intolerable.”
THE DAY AFTER the Fetterman event, Cease learned she lost her local court case. Indiana County Court of Common Pleas Judge William Martin on Monday announced his ruling in favor of the county housing authority for denying her a federal housing subsidy. The ruling thus sustains the Catch 22 that entraps her — and others — in a limbo between the state’s 2016 medical marijuana law and the federal government’s marijuana illogic.
Cease’s pro bono attorney, Judith D. Cassel, of Harrisburg, on Tuesday said Judge Martin chose not to use his discretion to rule in her client’s favor, just as the county housing authority earlier dodged its discretion to grant her a federal housing subsidy she had been granted elsewhere.
Martin was unwilling to set a precedent, Cassel said.
“It would have been a bold ruling,” Cassel said. “First in the nation.”
But within a month, Cassel said she will appeal to state Commonwealth Court, an intermediate appellate panel that hears complaints against government.
“I will take this as far as it can go,” Cassel said.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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