'High hopes' for recreational marijuana

Category:  News
Thursday, February 21st, 2019 at 11:36 AM
'High hopes' for recreational marijuana by Nathan Brennan
Photo: Nathan Brennan

Erie’s Jefferson Educational Society played host on Saturday to local lawmakers and citizens alike, as part of Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s recreational marijuana “listening tour.”

Pennsylvania is one of the 33 states where medical marijuana is already legal. On the other hand, only 10 states, and not Pennsylvania, have legalized it for recreational use.

Visiting all 67 counties of the state, Fetterman wanted to hear directly from citizens about possible legalization of recreational marijuana, while getting a general consensus from all the counties on which side they lean: for or against legalization. “What interests me is what you all think about recreational marijuana,” he explained. 

Joining Fetterman were local representatives for Erie County, including Rep. Bob Merski of the 2nd District, Sen. Dan Laughlin of the 49th District, Rep. Ryan Bizzarro of the 3rd District and Rep. Pat Harkins of the 1st District. 

All onstage sought, first and foremost, to listen to the thoughts and concerns of the citizens present. “We are committed to absolute transparency…there is no agenda,” said Fetterman. 

Laughlin agreed. “I came here today simply to listen and to learn what people’s views are on this,” he said, adding that he has not yet made up his mind on the issue. 

The same was expressed by Merski, who, as a former city council member, supported the decriminalization of marijuana and also showed concern for children exposed to marijuana by adults. 

They then opened up the forum to audience members. In the interest of time, each speaker was kept to a two-minute limit.

Those Opposed

While in the minority, many did express hesitation and direct opposition to legalizing recreational marijuana.

Joe Kress, a retired policeman, is vehemently against the proposal. After he described his brother dying at the hands of a drug user, he went into law enforcement at almost all levels to try to help remedy the situation. Citing a study regarding high school dropout numbers and prisons, Kress passed his research on to the lawmakers on stage for them to consider.

Another man, using the example of Colorado, cited a study that found accidents doubled because of weed. A member of the audience disagreed, shouting, “Do you have those numbers?”

He did not say the actual numbers, but continued, adding that he had concerns that workers may feel compelled to go to work while high. 

An elderly woman and former nurse showed concern for what can happen to marijuana users who seek more of a high. “Marijuana is a stepping stone into harder drugs,” she claimed.

Another man, dressed in a red shirt with the words “Obey Jesus” printed on it, relied not on statistical findings, but the Bible. He, too, opposed all uses of marijuana.

“I used to be a gangbanger,” he said. “I used to smoke weed, get high, party… it all started when I smoked weed.” 

He opposes legalization not only on religious grounds, but on the matter of possible financial benefits stemming from it, stating, “The Bible says, ‘Love of money is the root of all evil.’” 

Barb Kuhn, an Erie resident, shared the concern about money. “Does the means justify the end?” she asked. “Is the money that important?”

She proceeded to call out Bizzarro by name for his support of legalization, and ended her comments by saying that if the only way to get money for the state is through recreational marijuana, “something is wrong with Pennsylvania.”

Another former police officer also opposed, explaining that while on the job, he has seen firsthand that regulations, such as restrictions on alcohol and prescription drugs, are not working.  He went on to say that he’s seen 13 and 14-year-old kids going to parties to drink alcohol and do drugs, and he further shared that he has reason to be concerned that this could worsen if recreational marijuana is legalized.

Those Undecided

Some members of the audience were admittedly undecided, citing that they were reluctant because of the legislation specifics and how it would deal with certain issues.

Todd Dietrick, a representative of the Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 12, is leaning in favor, but only depending on how the bill would address workers’ compensation.

His company is drug-free, requiring all incoming workers or apprentices to submit to a drug test. This applies to their workers’ compensation, which is dependent on whether they’re still drug free at the time of the accident. Dietrick would like to see this issue addressed. 

Those in Favor

The vast majority of the citizens present argued for the legalization of recreational marijuana. 

A vegetable grower from North East said she has many friends with issues, such as PTSD, arthritis and fibromyalgia, who use marijuana to ease their pain. “It’s just a plant that benefits a lot of people,” she said. 

Rich Irvine, a member of the Albion Borough Council and former Albion mayor, argued that one cannot dismiss the opportunity for more state revenue. “The money should go where it’s more important,” he said, naming the heroin problem and school funding as just a few he approves of.

Another citizen cited a study which found that in states where recreational marijuana is legal, real estate values went up by 15 percent, while business was better, as well. She continued, saying that dispensaries give back to the community by donation. In turn, issues such as school funding could be helped out. She noted, however, that more research should be done regarding effects on the brain before any legislation is passed.

Paul Dietrich, originally from North East, also agreed on the matter of funding: “Keeping [the money] all in Pennsylvania will benefit the state,” he said. 

Many also mentioned that adults, especially with severe medical issues, could greatly benefit from legalization.

Dietrich went on to mention his wife, who is a medical marijuana user. Often expensive, he hopes that legalizing recreational marijuana could bring medical prices down.

Another concern that those who support legalization refuted was the concept of marijuana’s effects on the human brain.

An Erie citizen, 65 years old, has smoked marijuana for 50 years. To the delight of the crowd, he said, “My brain is not messed up, and I haven’t wanted to kill anything except for a bag of Cheetos.”

He also directly addressed the concern about marijuana possibly being a “gateway drug,” saying that he never wanted to do any of the “crazy” stuff like heroin and opiates. 

In fact, many mentioned that where the “other stuff” failed to work, marijuana did. 

For instance, a steel worker, who said that other drugs such as opioids didn’t work, was able to go back to work after taking marijuana for her pain. Similarly, an elderly man also said that his only relief from years of constant pain has been marijuana. 

Another citizen argued that legalization could right society’s wrongs. Echoing the sentiments of the center’s namesake, the owner of local Erie business Fat Lenny’s cited the words of Thomas Jefferson: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

He would then call out those concerned about children. “Parents: be parents. Get involved in your kids’ lives,” he said, while maintaining that this could help prevent children from taking in bad influences.

He then added, “The best anti-drugs are hope, opportunity and purpose. These are not offered in jail.”

Indeed, another issue brought up was the fate of those who are or were previously in jail on charges of possession of marijuana. 

Many brought up the possibility of the legislation expunging the records of non-violent offenders if it’s passed.

One such non-violent offender was present in the forum, who said that at 20 years of age, he was prosecuted for possession and now has a criminal record. As a result, he has had great difficulty finding work. If legislation is passed, he said he wants to be able to find work again and see the benefits of recreational marijuana spread out for everyone via residential growing licenses. 

The Consensus

After about 90 minutes of audience input, Fetterman brought the forum to a close with a show of hands: In an overwhelming majority, most of the room raised their hands in support of legalizing recreational marijuana, while a group of those who disagreed raised their hands in opposition. 

While there was certainly disagreement among those in the crowd, the goal of the forum was accomplished. In Fetterman’s words, “We’re here for a civil, open exchange between viewpoints.” This was the case.

The listening tour will continue in Clearfield County today and Juniata County on Sunday, Feb. 24.

Nathan Brennan | ae.spectator@gmail.com

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