Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman found Venango County strongly in favor of the legalization of recreational marijuana on Sunday, at least based on the portion of the county that came to voice their opinions at his listening tour stop at Oil City High School.
Fetterman has been traveling around each county to hear the thoughts of residents across the state, and for Venango County, the response was largely positive.
While they do not have an exact tally of the people polled yet, roughly 75 percent raised their hands when asked if they were in favor of legalizing the substance. These numbers, according to Fetterman put Venango County toward the middle of the road in counties Fetterman has visited so far.
Eighteen counties in, feedback has ranged from around 50 percent in favor in Somerset county to roughly 90 near the cities of Erie and Harrisburg.
This was a listening tour and designed for Fetterman to receive community feedback rather than give commentary. Although he tarried around to shake hands and answer questions after the event, he only spoke during the gathering to introduce himself and why he was there.
“There are no right answers,” he said. “There are no wrong answers. This is a true listening tour.”
True to his word, he only spoke for the rest of the session to thank those who spoke and to ask clarifying questions regarding their stance for or against the legalization considerations.
The people of Venango County spoke solidly for the next hour and a half.
Of the 32 speakers, 24 weighed supported legalizing the substance, while eight were either against such measures or on the fence.
However, for the lieutenant governor, Sunday’s event wasn’t about the numbers.
“What sticks with me is the warmth and the community here,” Fetterman said afterwards. “Everyone just gave up two hours of their Sunday to be here for an important issue. What sticks with me most is the stories of people. ‘I can walk for the first time.’ ‘I lost my son in an accident’ from the former mayor. I mean, these are the reasons why were doing this. This isn’t a poll question. This is, we want to hear from Pennsylvanians why they think the way they do, and so they can hear from each other and so they can understand why they think the way they do.”
The reasons for legalization covered the gamut of perceived benefits in the social, medical, mental health, and financial spheres, among others.
“A lot of people get upset and I don’t even think they understand why. I heard comments about smoking,” said Mark Flaherty, an Oil City resident who said that he is for legalization even though he is not a marijuana user. “If you are against marijuana because smoking leads to problems, then you should be against smoking. If your problem is a gateway drugs, there is no medical science that says marijuana is a gateway drug, there just is not … Marijuana does not make a person bad. It does not need to be a crime.”
For Flaherty, it is a question of civic liberties. He said that people should be able to seek “the pursuit of happiness” however they want to.
For Oil City man Jack Russell, the need for legalization is, among other things, financially significant.
“How about pot for the potholes,” Russell said, making reference to a street in Oil City that he said is in need of maintenance. He believes that revenue generated from the marijuana industry could be used to solve budgetary needs in Oil City.
On the other side of the issue, a number of objections were raised. People suggested that the drug could open doors for greater use of the drug by children. It was suggested those under the age of 25, but particularly teens, could be subject to averse developmental issues from marijuana at an early age. Others raised concern that people would spend money on drugs rather than their kids.
Some people in attendance simply didn’t see significant benefits to legalizing the substance.
“Usually when the government gets involved in something like this, there is a broad societal benefit,” said Jim Knarr, a Franklin resident. “My trouble is, I am hard-pressed to see that here.”
Former Oil City Mayor Malachy McMahon shared a cautionary story of his son’s death in a motor vehicle accident. His son was hit by a driver who had a number of substances in his system including heroin, methadone and marijuana.
Even a number of those in favor of the legalization of marijuana expressed concern that it be heavily regulated and that measures be taken to keep drivers under the influence of the substance off the streets.
For Fetterman, all of these stories gives him a chance to learn a little more about the issue and gives people a chance to express their views on this issue.
“I think it’s important to be in the same room and have conversations with people that may or may not agree with you and have the same viewpoints, and I think there is a real desire among people that come to these meetings to experience that,” Fetterman said.
Fetterman was joined on the platform by Venango County Commissioner Albert Abramovic, and his fellow commissioner, Vincent Witherup, was also in the audience.
Among the 18 other counties that Fetterman has visited so far were Warren and Erie counties, on Feb. 16, and Crawford County on Feb. 27. He said that Crawford County was very similar to Venango, in terms of response and the tone of the meeting.
“Crawford, it was the same (as Venango),” he said. “It was great. The people were wonderful. I am almost embarrassed by how grateful folks are. Like, don’t thank me. This is my job. Everyone is just so kind and respectful of different views.”
Anyone who was unable to make the tour is able to leave online feedback, at governor.pa.gov/recreational-marijuana-feedback/. According to Fetterman, over 21,000 Pennsylvanians have so far.
Fetterman’s next stop will be in Montgomery County on Tuesday, at Perkiomen High School, at 6 p.m.
Brown can be reached, by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.