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FOX43 Focal Point: Cannabis in the Commonwealth – Should Pennsylvania fully legalize marijuana?

NEW BLOOMFIELD, Perry County - On a rainy, Monday night in March, hundreds of Perry County residents pack into an overstuffed VFW assembly hall to share their thoughts if Pennsylvania should legalize pot.

Each person waits in a line that wraps around the room; those in the back of the line waiting 90 minutes to share their thoughts.

"No! We don’t want to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania and increase our state crime, traffic fatalities, and public health issues," exclaims one woman.

Another man focuses on decriminalizing the drug says, "It's a victimless crime. We, the taxpayers, shouldn't have to pay for their incarceration."

"I’m sorry but the government has no right to tell me what I can do with myself," a younger man said. 

Dozens share their thoughts, while sitting at the front of the room, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman listens, saying little and expressing less. Perry County is the 24th stop of his 67-county marijuana listening tour, which he plans to complete by this summer.

Fetterman is in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, citing a desire to reform the criminal justice system while decriminalizing it and taxing it for profit. However, he doesn't advocate for it during his tour stops. In fact, he let's some of his Democratic colleagues do most of the talking.

A pair of bills and proposals to legalize pot are currently circulating the state legislature. State Representative Jake Wheatley (D-Allegheny) is the prime sponsor of House Bill 50, while State Senators Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) and Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) are working to introduce their own legalization bill.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale may be the state's loudest proponent of legal weed, if not its highest profile advocate. The second-term Democrat published a report in July 2018 indicating a legalized marijuana business in Pennsylvania could create a $581 million revenue windfall. He obtained those numbers by taking a federal study of admitted marijuana users in the Keystone State and comparing it to how much money was spent in states where marijuana is legal, like Washington and Colorado.

Governor Tom Wolf has not taken an official stance. However, he did sign off on Lt. Governor Fetterman's listening tour.

"The governor, in his wisdom, believes Pennsylvania is ready for this conversation," Fetterman said. "States around us are having this conversation, and the only way to do that is to fully engage everybody."

That includes Republican lawmakers, who Fetterman invites from each district to join him on stage during his tour stops. However, unlike medical marijuana, which had wide bipartisan support when it was signed by Governor Wolf in 2016, recreational marijuana is about as split as it gets, with no Republican lawmakers having come out in favor of legal weed.

"You’re talking about a Schedule I narcotic defined by the federal government," said Pa. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman. "To legalize it because it makes money is not the way to do public policy."

Currently, ten states and Washington D.C. have fully legalized marijuana, all following Colorado's lead when the Centennial State passed Amendment 64 in 2012.

In that case, Colorado voters petitioned to get a marijuana legalization referendum on the ballot. On November 6, 2012, Amendment 64 passed with a 55% majority, tasking Colorado lawmakers to draft a bill to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

Former Denver-area State Representative Dan Pabon, who drafted the marijuana legislation after Amendment 64 passed, said most Colorado lawmakers were opposed to recreational legalization, which came 12 years after Colorado approved medical marijuana.

"It turns out the voters were way ahead of the legislature when it came to this issue," Pabon said. 

Pabon said Colorado's legislators had to learn on the fly, and even though Colorado approved legal marijuana first, it is still adding to its list of rules. For example, Colorado has one rule which prohibits edible marijuana  from being in the shape of humans or animals so to make it less enticing to children. Colorado also does not allow marijuana tasting rooms, it cannot be delivered to customers, and must be consumed inside a residence.

Pennsylvania, according to Pabon, is going about its process the right way.

"When you’re rolling out a brand new system, you want to go slow, collect data, reflect on that data and inch along," Pabon said. Many states, including Pennsylvania, he says, are taking that approach.

Among the data Pennsylvania lawmakers are looking at comes from a 2018 study completed by the Colorado Department of Public Safety, which shows total crime in the state is up 12% from 2012 to 2017 and violent crime is up 28% in the same time frame. However, it is not known if those statistics have any direct connection to marijuana's legalization.

"I don`t think we should jump in while we still don`t know these answers," Senator Corman said.

While lawmakers learn those answers, Lieutenant Governor Fetterman is learning more about what Pennsylvanians want in terms of legalization.

At the Perry County listening tour stop, around two-thirds of those attending were in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use. According to Fetterman, of the more than 60 counties he's visited thus far, only Jefferson County and Adams County have been majority opposed to legalization, and Somerset County was a 50-50 split.

Fetterman's marijuana listening tour is scheduled to wrap up Saturday, May 18 and Sunday, May 19 with four stops in Philadelphia County. You can leave your feedback on whether marijuana should be legalized in Pennsylvania here. 

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