As the 2022 election cycle gets into full swing, Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race is already shaping up to be one of the most closely watched contests in the nation. With the pending retirement of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, many pundits believe Pennsylvania is the best chance for Democrats to pick up a seat and break the 50-50 tie in the Senate. While about a half-dozen Democratic candidates have announced their bid for the office, current Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is emerging as the frontrunner. A populist with 14 years of experience as a small-town mayor, Fetterman stands firmly on core Democratic values. But the best chance of taking the Senate blue, he says, lies in the color green: legal marijuana.
Fetterman has made cannabis legalization an essential element of his campaign, decrying the arrests and incarceration that have plagued the lives of millions of ordinary people over a plant. He also sees the potential for countless new businesses and the jobs that go with them, as well as billions in new revenue for government coffers from cannabis taxes. But unlike many other politicians, Fetterman didn’t have to “evolve” into supporting the legalization of marijuana, saying he knows “it’s always been the right thing to do.”
“It never should have been illegal in the first place. This is a plant with no known medical overdose,” Fetterman says emphatically in a telephone interview. “This is a plant now that’s helped 350,000 people, just in my state alone, with their medical issues,” referring to Pennsylvanians using medical marijuana, which was legalized in the state in 2016.
“The fact that this miraculous plant was ever illegal and Schedule 1 [of the Controlled Substances Act] by our federal government is a travesty, and it has ruined hundreds of thousands of lives,” he continues. “And it should have never been the case.”
Working For Legal Weed In Pennsylvania
Since Fetterman was elected Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor in 2018, he has been working diligently to fully legalize cannabis, a move he believes has the support of a solid majority of the state. In 2019, a 98-day whirlwind tour took him to all 67 of the state’s counties for town hall meetings with one item on the agenda: legalizing adult-use cannabis. After listening to residents from all walks of life on both sides of the issue, Fetterman estimated that 65% to 70% of the state supports legalizing marijuana.
Gov. Tom Wolf, also a Democrat, is on board with cannabis legalization as well. In January, he called on state lawmakers to make passing cannabis legalization a priority for 2021. Together, Wolf and Fetterman, who as lieutenant governor chairs the state Board of Pardons, have teamed up to release dozens of prisoners with convictions for nonviolent cannabis offenses.
But so far, the Republican majority in the state legislature has failed to take up the cause of legalizing pot. Although a bipartisan bill to legalize and regulate marijuana is pending, it seems unlikely the measure will ever come up for a vote. When asked how he plans to get the job done with just over a year left in office, Fetterman says he will “continue to tell the truth.”
“Pennsylvania wants this. Pennsylvania’s farmers need this. Pennsylvania’s veterans need this. Pennsylvanians that have these ridiculous charges on their record need expungement and legalization,” he exclaims. “Our job market needs it. Our treasury needs the billions in long-term revenue. There is literally not a single downside to legalization, and it’s all upside. And I’m just going to keep pushing that truth.”
Eventually, Fetterman says, enough Republicans will realize that it is easier to say they’ve evolved on cannabis legalization and “just do right by the people of Pennsylvania.”
“I don’t know how soon that will happen, but there isn’t one person that genuinely doesn’t recognize that it’s inevitable,” he says. “It’s just a matter of how long it will take.”
Taking The Fight For Legal Pot To Washington
If he succeeds in his quest for Pennsylvania’s seat in the U.S. Senate, Fetterman’s attention will turn to the federal legalization of marijuana. He sees several priorities at the national level, saying, “First and foremost, let’s get it off Schedule 1 immediately, and let’s pass some banking reforms,” as well as “mass expungement for every nonviolent offense.”
The path to those goals isn’t crystal clear, however. Some Democrats believe issues considered an easier political lift, such as allowing financial institutions to provide banking services to cannabis businesses in states with legalized marijuana, should be separated from more divisive topics including full decriminalization and regulation. However, others including New Jersey’s Sen. Cory Booker have suggested a comprehensive bill that combines justice reform elements with legislation that protects cannabis industry profits.
“I support whatever gets it done. I’m not a purist in terms of the process,” Fetterman says when asked which approach he favors. “I just have always run on this and know that it’s something that needs to happen. There isn’t one justification not to support it, other than this vestigial reefer madness, or just the toxic political culture of opposing what we want just for the sake of opposing it.”
Primary Battle Looms
To win Pennsylvania’s Senate seat, Fetterman will first have to make his case to Democratic voters as he faces competition from both ends of the party’s political spectrum in next year’s primary. Among the challengers, moderate U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb has won three races for his seat in Congress representing a conservative-leaning district, while the more progressive Malcolm Kenyatta is building support in Philadelphia, the state’s Democratic stronghold.
Fetterman’s blue-collar brand of progressivism, however, has broad appeal. Measuring 6 feet 8 inches from the floor to the top of his bald head, sporting arm tattoos and a bristly chin beard sans mustache, he presents an image not often seen in statewide or national politics. Many voters, it seems, find him a refreshing change of pace. Last week, his Senate campaign announced it has received more than 300,000 contributions from more than 86% of Pennsylvania’s ZIP codes.
While cannabis legalization is a major part of Fetterman’s campaign, he’s also a champion of other Democratic causes including organized labor, a woman’s right to choose, and support for the LGBTQ community. If he successfully takes Toomey’s Senate seat from red to blue, it could be enough to give the Democrats a 51-49 advantage in the upper chamber of Congress. Given the chance, Fetterman says he would be “a reliable, steadfast Democratic vote on core democratic principles and proposals.”
“Whether that is a living wage, whether that is universal health care, whether that is the PRO Act and the union way of life, whether that is equal protection under the law for our gay and trans communities, whether that is safeguarding Roe v. Wade, especially, now that that’s so topical in today’s news, in light of Texas,” he says. “Our voting rights are under siege too, in many of these same states. And of course, cannabis is part of that, too.”
So far, the lieutenant governor’s chances of success in the primary look promising. Earlier this year, former Pennsylvania governor and fellow Democrat Ed Rendell, who supported a different candidate during Fetterman’s first bid for the U.S. Senate in 2016, told the Atlantic that this time around, “He’s the candidate to beat, no question.”
Will Democrats Embrace Cannabis Legalization?
Fetterman is convinced that legalizing cannabis is so popular with the electorate that he believes the Democratic Party should embrace the issue fully. When Politico wrote last September that supporting marijuana legalization could be risky for Democrats in the 2020 general election, Fetterman countered on social media that the issue not only posed “Zero risk,” it could be a vital issue in the party’s success.
“Not only zero risk, it’s a dormant, policy lever that would bestow a massive electoral advantage to whatever party pulls it,” he tweeted, adding, “Nationally, and in Pennsylvania, legal weed is the right side of history.”
To make his case that cannabis legalization is an issue the Democratic Party can ride to victory, he points out that last year voters in deeply conservative South Dakota chose to join dozens of other states including California, the first to legalize medical marijuana and an early adopter of legal recreational cannabis.
“Why are we arguing about this?” he rhetorically asks the remaining marijuana prohibitionists. “When South Dakota and California agree on anything politically, that should be an automatic ‘OK, we’re done here. Let’s just do this.’”