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Pennsylvania’s 2022 races show how marijuana legalization has gone from fringe to front-runner

Top-tier Democratic candidates for statewide office in Pennsylvania next year back full marijuana legalization. Their Republican counterparts don’t have much to say on the issue.

Marijuana plants.
Marijuana plants.Read moreBrad Horrigan / MCT

Not long ago, a candidate for statewide office in Pennsylvania would have been seen as fringe for backing the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Now the issue looks like a winner for Democrats.

The party’s major candidates for U.S. Senate and governor all favor legal weed.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the early Senate front-runner, flooded the internet with pro-pot messaging this week. He got on board after a 2019 statewide tour, where he spoke to voters about the issue.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a likely front-runner for governor, has also been in favor of legalization since 2019.

And the Republican candidates? Clout heard mostly stony silence when we asked this week.

This all falls on the week of 4-20, slang for smoking pot that became an unofficial holiday date for those inclined to toke.

A Muhlenberg College poll last week makes clear the evolution of the issue and the ideological split it still provokes.

Nearly three in five of the 421 Pennsylvanians polled last month support legalization, while 26% oppose it and the rest are unsure or have no opinion. That’s a significant swing in eight years. A similar survey in 2013 found just a third in favor, with 40% opposed and the rest unsure or holding no opinion.

And the new poll mirrors results from a Pew Research Center national survey of 5,109 Americans released last week, which showed three in five support full legalization.

Strong majorities of Democrats (70%) and independents (57%) in the Muhlenberg poll support legalization. Republican opinion is split, with 43% in favor, 40% opposed, and the rest unsure or holding no opinion. Support drops as people age, with those 18 to 29 at 80% and those 65 or older at 35%.

Two Republicans running for Senate, Sean Gale of Montgomery County and Everett Stern of Chester County, said they oppose full legalization. Stern said he used medical marijuana for pain after a car crash and supports that use.

Two doctors running as Democrats, Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh and Pennsylvania Hospital emergency-room physician Kevin Baumlin, back legalization. State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat also running for the Senate, voted for legalization in 2019.

State Sen. Sharif Street, a Philadelphia Democrat exploring a Senate run, is preparing to introduce bipartisan legislation for marijuana legalization. He is sensing shifts in opinions across the aisle that remind some of the swing toward support for legalizing casinos that passed in 2004.

“This is a serious step for some of my Republican colleagues,” Street said.

He should know. He was 8 years old in 1983 when his uncle, T. Milton Street Sr., introduced legislation in the state Senate to legalize marijuana, pushing it as a cure to the state’s fiscal woes. The legislation, which never got serious consideration, was one factor opponents used to oust Street from the Senate the following year.

“He was serious at the time,” Street said. “People thought he was kidding.”

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Sims won’t seek another state House term

State Rep. Brian Sims, a Center City Democrat, tells Clout he’s all in on his campaign for lieutenant governor next year and won’t seek a sixth term in the state House.

That rumble you hear is a stampede of candidates who want to replace him in the 182nd District, which stretches from Spring Garden to South Philadelphia. Party backing will be key, since 72% of the district’s voters are Democrats.

Democratic Party chair Bob Brady said he expects Sims to back Deja Lynn Alvarez for the seat. He has already met with Alvarez, a public-health LGBTQ activist and in 2019 the first transgender woman to run for City Council.

Alvarez told Clout she is “definitely interested” in the seat.

“I have been having a lot of very interesting conversations that are going very well,” she said.

Brady said he also met with Jonathan Lovitz, senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, who announced his campaign this week.

Other potential Democratic contenders: former 182nd candidates Marisa Shaaban, a lobbyist who ran in 2020, and Ben Waxman, a political consultant and former state Senate staffer who ran in 2016.

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Fetterman counters radio attack ad

Clout last week detailed the first political ad of the 2022 Senate race. The Collective Super PAC ad called out Fetterman for a 2013 incident when the then-Braddock mayor held a shotgun while detaining a man he saw running from what he said he suspected was a nearby shooting. The man turned out to be an unarmed Black jogger.

The group aired that radio ad in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Fetterman countered, airing a radio ad in both cities for a week, highlighting his work as chairman of the state Board of Pardons. It’s narrated by Dennis and Lee Horton, brothers from North Philadelphia convicted in a 1993 robbery and murder, who have maintained their innocence.

“We were just so grateful that somebody finally was trying to stand by us to help us fight,” the Horton brothers say in the ad. “Before that we were just invisible. And he just started going to work, trying to help us get out.”

Gov. Tom Wolf commuted their life sentences in February. Fetterman hired them last Friday as campaign organizers.

Clout provides often irreverent news and analysis about people, power, and politics.