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Lt. Gov. Fetterman’s weed tour takes some hits | John Baer

Are the LG's public meetings on legalizing marijuana stacked in favor of proponents? Fetterman says nope.

Braddock Mayor and Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman talks to fairgoers as he campaigns at the 163rd Bloomsburg Fair September 25, 2018. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Braddock Mayor and Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman talks to fairgoers as he campaigns at the 163rd Bloomsburg Fair September 25, 2018. TOM GRALISH / Staff PhotographerRead moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

First, I’m surprised it took this long.

Second, it always was inevitable.

So, now we have public shots at Lt. Gov. John Fetterman for running around and listening to what Pennsylvanians think about legalizing marijuana.

(Spoiler alert: They seem to think it’s a good idea.)

Some knocks showed up during last weekend’s Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, an annual conservative gathering at a hotel outside Harrisburg.

This makes sense, given how conservatives tend to feel about Mary Jane. And I don’t mean the shoes. I think they like the shoes.

The event’s sponsors include the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, and the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank.

If you haven’t been counting, Fetterman’s halfway through his “listening tour” at town-hall-type meetings in all 67 counties.

When the tour started in February, there was nary a peep of public reproach.

Even Senate GOP leader Jake Corman, an avowed legalization opponent, said he had no problem with Democrat Fetterman’s road show: “If he wants to go to 67 counties, God bless him.”

And the tour, according to media coverage so far, has been a series of well-attended civil gatherings featuring opinions from both sides.

But during the leadership conference, a couple of negative assessments arose.

State Rep. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson) and Pennsylvania Family Institute president Michael Geer suggest Fetterman’s events are stacked in favor of legalization supporters.

Dush said constituents of his who work at medical-marijuana dispensaries (Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation legalizing medical marijuana in April 2016) told him they got advance notice of meetings so they could plan to attend.

Fetterman says that didn’t happen: “That’s beyond bizarre. That’s like saying that I was a championship jockey in my previous career.”

(If you’re unfamiliar with Fetterman’s physique, he’s 6-foot-8 and weighs around 260. Hard to picture him urging a horse across a finish line — unless it’s the Clydesdale Stakes.)

Fetterman says the only targeted advance contact is calls he personally places to House and Senate members inviting them to events in their districts.

“I actually called and spoke with Rep. Dush, and let him speak [at a February meeting in DuBois] for five minutes, longer than anyone else, as to why he opposes legalization,” Fetterman said.

The DuBois Courier-Express reported that Dush said he did his own “16-year listening tour” while working as a corrections officer in the state prison system. He called marijuana a stepping-stone drug and possible cause of mental health issues.

Dush, who last year proposed impeaching four Democratic state Supreme Court justices following the court’s imposition of new congressional district maps, did not respond to a request for comment.

Geer tells me he’s concerned that since Fetterman openly supports legalization, the listening tour “appears to be set up to advance that agenda.”

Geer says the events should be announced sooner, especially in larger counties where people must plan to travel. He argues that venues such as college campuses are predisposed to draw legalization supporters. And he says weed supporters tend to be vocal, which can lead to “unintended intimidation” of nonsupporters.

Fetterman press secretary Christina Kauffman says the schedule is publicly announced weeks in advance, and that venues depend on availability in each community and include VFW posts and fire halls.

Fetterman says his views on legalization are “well-known and established,” but he never advocates for them at sessions, and stresses “we want absolute respect for all viewpoints, in a civil and secure environment.”

The tour is expected to run to mid-June and cost state taxpayers roughly $25,000 for venue fees, when necessary, and staff mileage.

Fetterman says he’s so far found near-unanimous support for decriminalization of small amounts of grass, and a clear majority for legalization.

(Auditor General Gene DePasquale estimates legal pot could generate more than a half-billion dollars in new state revenue.)

The tour strikes me as positive. Top elected officials meeting with citizens on any topic is good for democracy.

It also strikes me as political genius. Fetterman’s clearly interested in seeking office beyond the one he holds, whether U.S. Senate, governor, or something else.

And while I don’t see the tour boosting weed’s shot in Harrisburg (when does the legislature do what citizens want?), I bet it boosts Fetterman statewide.