Curiosity about legalizing recreational pot as Fetterman’s listening tour stops in Philly

People on all sides of the debate joined Lt. Gov. Fetterman’s listening tour. Even some favoring medical marijuana wondered about legal recreational use.

Lieutenance Governor John Fetterman asks the audience who is in favor of the legalization of recreational marijuana and the majority of attendees raise their hands. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Lieutenance Governor John Fetterman asks the audience who is in favor of the legalization of recreational marijuana and the majority of attendees raise their hands. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Wendy Damario of Northeast Philadelphia wanted to attend Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s marijuana listening tour because of her son.

Christopher Damario, 14, has autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other behavioral disorders.

“For the last five years, he’s been under a blanket in the corner of the couch,” she told a gymnasium crowd of about 35 people Saturday at Northeast High School.

Wendy Damario addresses the panel of representatives on the importance of medical marijuana. With her is her son Christopher Damario who is on the autism spectrum and suffers from a number of additional impairments including PTSD, ADHD, sensory processing disorder and others. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

In February, Christopher started taking medical marijuana. Instantly, his mother said, they saw improvements. He’s started to make friends, attends his classes on a regular basis, and is meeting his personal goals with his social workers.

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“This medication gave me my son back,” Wendy Damario said. “Everyone needs a chance, us parents, us caregivers, need to have a chance and hope in knowing that these children could walk down the street with a vape pen if they need to.”

Fetterman was bringing his recreational-marijuana listening tour to town for the first time on Saturday since it started earlier this year. He has now visited all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties — in Philadelphia, his final stop, Fetterman was due at University of the Sciences later in the day. On Sunday, the lieutenant governor stops at Temple University at 1 p.m. and at Furness High School at 5 p.m.

At Northeast High, he told Damario that her testament to how medical marijuana has helped her son with autism was one he’s heard in nearly every county he’s visited during the listening tour.

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman listens to speakers commenting on the possible legalization of recreational use marijuana. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Medical marijuana became legal in the state in 2016, though its availability in dispensaries started only a little over a year ago.

But among the supporters of medical marijuana and the potential legalization of recreational use, there are also some naysayers and others undecided on the health benefits of cannabis. Many in attendance at the Northeast Philly stop were in favor of medical marijuana and said they know people who are helped by it, but they added they have some reservations about recreational use.

“This is all about a conversation,” Fetterman told the crowd. “There’s no right answer, there’s no wrong answer. It’s just about what you think about this important public policy topic.”

Bee Friedman of Northeast Philadelphia said she supports the medical marijuana program in Pennsylvania but has concerns about drugs in general because of the national and local opioid epidemic.

“If we legalize marijuana for everyone, we may be unleashing some genie that we really don’t need to unleash, and I just don’t think it’s been studied enough for us to know how to do it and whether it’s even advisable,” Friedman said. She also worries that legalizing recreational use may lead to more car accidents, caused by people driving while high.

Reuben Coates, who lives in the Northeast too, said he worries about the amount of misinformation easily available about marijuana’s effects on the body.

Rwuben Coates, (right), spoke at the meeting in favor of the legalization of recreational marijuana. With him is his son Jahlil Coates. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

“We hear what other people feel about it, without actually researching what it is, and what it does,” Coates said. “It’s not a drug. It’s classified as a drug, which is very different.”

It’s crucial to talk about what recreational legalization would look like from a criminal-justice reform standpoint, Coates said. He knows many city residents who have criminal records for possessing small amounts of marijuana 25 years ago.

“It’s sad. Twenty-five years later, you’re supposed to be able to pay your penance for what you did and be done with it, and that’s not what’s happening here,” Coates said.

Fetterman chairs the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, and he told Coates that the state wants to clear many of those decades-old, small-possession charges. It’s now free in Pennsylvania to apply for a pardon from the state.

Bill Scicchitano is against the legalization of recreational marijuana — he said he thinks it’s a “gateway drug.” However, he thinks the matter should be decided by state residents through a ballot measure in a future election.

Bill Scicchitano expresses his opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

“I think it should be up to the taxpayers to decide this,” Scicchitano said. “Because we have to live with this. I think all the facts should be laid bare, and I think we, the general public, should have a chance to vote on it.”

Those who said they were in favor of recreational marijuana also had some concerns over its implementation, as well as the current iteration of the state’s medical-marijuana program.

Samantha Petruck is a U.S. veteran who developed post-traumatic stress disorder after taking care of Pentagon employees who were injured during the 9/11 attacks. She’s been prescribed many different addictive drugs for her PTSD by the Department of Veterans Affairs. As it stands, VA clinicians cannot recommend medical marijuana to veterans. She was approved for medical marijuana through her primary-care doctor but still had to pay the $200 for her medical-marijuana card.

Veteran Navy Surgical Corpsman Samantha Petruck speaks in support of the medical use of marijuana for veterans. Petruck suffers from PTSD as a result of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon building where she was part of a team that recovered bodies. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Petruck said she’d like to see the VA on board with “healthier health care” options for veterans in situations like hers.

“Why do I have to have permission to smoke medication?” Petruck asked. “I don’t understand why I am paying for that because I am already on a limited income. I would like it if the VA could please directly give me my medication because I need it.”

At the end of the discussion, Fetterman asked those attending to raise their hands for whether they were in favor, against or undecided on legalization of recreational marijuana. He’s done that at each visit and is keeping track of how each county feels.

Social worker James Graham stands before an audience of about 30 people and cites the problems caused by marijuana being illegal. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Generally, the Northeast attendees were in favor of legalization.

The listening tour does not necessarily mean there will be legislation introduced any time soon on use of recreational marijuana. Gov. Tom Wolf has generally been less talkative on the matter in comparison to Fetterman, but did say in December that the commonwealth should take a serious look at its possibility.

Any recreational-marijuana measure would require the support of the Republican-majority state legislature.

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