A packed room and dozens of speakers greeted Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in Harrisburg tonight, as he kicked off his statewide listening tour on the proposed legalization of recreational marijuana.
Despite a snowy evening and long security lines, some 300 people filed into the auditorium of the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center for the first of 67 such events, as Fetterman begins to wind his way through every county in the commonwealth.
For about two hours, Fetterman, joined on stage by state Rep. Patty Kim, listened patiently and respectfully as speaker after speaker rose either in support of or in opposition to the proposal, often sharing with him emotional stories from their lives.
One young man named Darryl said that he was arrested and jailed for possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia and now can’t find a full-time job because of those convictions.
“That’s why I’m struggling so badly, because of a stupid possession charge,” he said. “It’s time to end this.”
To that end, a few speakers recommended not only legalization but expungement of criminal records for those previously convicted.
Les Stark, executive director of Reading-based Keystone Cannabis Coalition, a pro-legalization advocacy group, said that, in Pennsylvania, about 25,000 people a year are arrested for marijuana possession.
“How many lives have been ruined in Harrisburg alone?” he asked. “Over the next 10 years, will we ruin the lives of 250,000 more Pennsylvania citizens?”
Several speakers identified themselves as users of medical marijuana, which is legal, and testified to the effectiveness of cannabis for treating their conditions.
One man said he was a disabled veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The use of marijuana, he said, has helped relieve his anxiety and is a better choice for treating pain than opioids.
“My life has been changed for the better,” he said. “I can’t say more emphatically that I am for this.”
While most attendees spoke in favor of legalization, some did not.
Several speakers said they feared that legalizing recreational marijuana would lead to greater threats to public safety—from the potential of more car accidents to the possible greater use of harsher drugs.
“My main concern is that I have a grandchild turning 16,” said one man. “My concern is that I believe recreational marijuana is a mind-controlling substance. I’m afraid for her to be driving out on the highway when some other driver’s mind is being controlled by marijuana.”
A few speakers cited their experiences in Colorado, where recreational marijuana has been legal since 2012. One woman said that her sister, a Colorado resident, has complained that marijuana use there has become ubiquitous, while a man, who said he supports legalization, said that Pennsylvania should study and learn from the Colorado experience, which, he said, has been mostly positive.
“On the bad side, does it get into the hands of teens?” he said. “Yes, it gets into the hands of teens.”
Other speakers accused the state of wanting to legalize recreational marijuana as a revenue-raising tool.
“I’m not against medical marijuana, but I am against use of recreational marijuana,” said one man. “I believe the administration just wants to create a new revenue source to tax and spend.”
Throughout the lengthy event, Fetterman said little from his seat on the stage, listening attentively as people spoke their minds.
At one point, he asked would-be speakers to allow a woman, who was holding an infant, to move to the front of the long line. The woman, who said she drove in from Hummelstown, offered a moving story about surviving AIDS then, relatively late in life, giving birth to her baby.
“Medical cannabis helped me survive by the skin of my teeth,” she said. “It can’t be denied to others.”
The listening tour continues on Tuesday at the Newport Public Library in Perry County, then, on Wednesday, moves on to Cumberland County to American Legion Post 109 in Mechanicsburg.
For Fetterman tonight, it was one county down, 66 to go.