NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP >> Pennsylvania’s Lt. Governor John Fetterman brought his recreational marijuana listening tour to Bucks County on Wednesday to hear what residents had to say on the issue.

He got an earful from a crowd of about 200 people gathered inside the Zlock Performing Arts Center on the campus of the Bucks County Community College.

Fetterman was joined on stage by State Senators Steve Santarsiero (D-10) and Maria Collett (D-12) and State Representatives Perry Warren (D-31), Wendy Ullman (D-143) and Tina Davis (D-141) who were also there to listen.

“This is an important public topic that people feel very passionate about,”  Fetterman told the audience. “Chances are you’re sitting next to someone who is strongly in favor of it. Chances are the person on the other side of you is strongly opposed,” said Fetterman. “I don’t plan to do a lot of talking because what I think on this isn’t interesting. What is is what you think. Let’s hear what Bucks County has to say.”

For the next hour and a half, residents spoke for and against the idea as the Lt. Governor listened and occasionally asked a question to a speaker.

The first to speak was Alexander Overton, who rejected the idea that cannabis is a gateway drug, arguing that distinction goes to alcohol and smoking, which he called “the true gateway drugs.

“Alcohol lowers your inhibitions making you more vulnerable to making poor decisions. The same cannot be said about cannabis, which he said poses zero health risk. In fact,” he said, “research shows its effective when it’s used as an exit drug,” noting that Pennsylvania recently approved medical marijuana for opioid use disorder.

“I am one of the Pennsylvanians this law is helping,” he said. “I have been prescribed methadone and I’ve also been prescribed medical marijuana. I’ve been able to lower my dose (of methadone) from 90 to 29 milligrams. Medical marijuana has aided me in the process by eliminating cravings, lowering stress and anxiety levels and reducing withdrawal symptoms. This is a sharp contrast that cannabis is a gateway drug.”

His comments were shared by a number of speakers who told the Lt. Governor and the state lawmakers that the use of medical cannabis has helped them beat their additions and has literally turned their lives around.

Recovering addict John Ruby, however, disagreed. “My first choice was not to use crystal meth, not to use cocaine. My first drug was marijuana that eventually led me to those other drugs.

“Healthy countries with healthy populations do not legalize drugs. Only countries in decline do,” he said.

Several nurses also spoke in favor of recreational marijuana, saying the plant should be treated as a medicine and no longer as an illegal drug.

“We’re talking about a therapeutic plant. We’re not talking about a man made drug,” said a patient advocate from Bucks County and a cannabis educator. “This plant can heal. I’ve seen it. There are people who are benefiting from this every day. We need to look at this plant for what it is. It is not a drug. It’s medicine. It’s therapeutic. It is time we let cannabis speak for itself.”

Newtown Township resident Steve Cickay added bluntly, “It’s freakin’ 2019. Prohibition is failing right now for pot.

“There’s an underground industry that serves a need for this relatively harmless recreational drug,” he said. “It’s time to get it out of the shadows and into the light. We need to mellow out in this time of partisan divide. We need to take a toke, relax and appreciate each other as human beings. Legalization will go a long way to making us all feel better.

“But let’s get practical,” Cickay continued. “It’s an industry. It will create jobs. It will be good for the economy. Other states are doing it. If we don’t do it we’re going to lose out. We need government revenue. This is a great tax source. We need those tax dollars to improve our environment. We need those tax dollars to improve our health care system so everyone can get coverage.”

Several at the forum agreed with Cickay’s financial assessment, citing Colorado’s windfall of tax dollars now approaching just under a billion and seeing legalization as a way of digging the state out from beneath its financial challenges, including the Philadelphia School District and the Turnpike Commission, both in debt to the tune of millions of dollars.

But at what expense, wondered another resident who said he recently attended a county forum on vaping and the opioid crisis and is concerned with how legalization will impact young people.

“Every single person who was there, from drug addicts to the chief of police from Buckingham to District Attorney Matt Weintraub, all said it’s the worst thing to do to legalize marijuana.

“We’re already the highest taxed state in the nation. We’ve legalized lotteries, alcohol, cigarettes, vaping - every sin tax there is. Now we want to legalize it and reap the rewards. It’s a horrible thing to do.

“As someone who is associated with a school district, we see it every day the challenges that our kids face,” he continued. “I tell my son it’s harder for you to grow up today then when I did whether it’s alcohol or drugs or the Internet.

“Our thinly veiled rational that it can be made legal and regulated is a joke,” he said. “Our young adults can get alcohol and cigarettes if they go online. All you’re doing in making it legal is making it easily obtainable. We’re lowering the bar for our kids, we’re making it acceptable and our kids are going to get stuck. That’s the problem. And every study shows that marijuana in a young adult’s brain is traumatic for a lifetime. We can’t do that to our kids.”

Another resident argued that legalizing recreational marijuana is “just a matter of common sense. It doesn’t make sense to continue to criminalize a large portion of our great state’s population over an activity largely practiced and accepted and similar to alcohol use and in many ways safer than alcohol.

“Probation doesn’t work,” said the Newtown resident. “We had three Constitutional amendments over that one. Pennsylvania regulating marijuana is going to be way safer than black market marijuana. Pennsylvania is losing an awful lot of valuable revenue over criminalizing an activity they’re going to do anyway.”

Fred Herren, Bensalem Township’s Director of Public Safety and head of the Bucks County Police Chiefs Association, voiced opposition to decriminalization and disagreed with a number of statements made during the forum.

Citing a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, he said marijuana is indeed a gateway drug, which brought sporadic booing from the audience.

He also shared a quick story about an incident that happened on November 2, 2017. A Bensalem police officer made a car stop for traffic violations. Inside the car, the individual was smoking marijuana.

“That arrest for marijuana, because that’s the only drug we can really smell, gave us probable cause to move forward and led to a major opioid ring being busted up, hundreds of thousands of pills being taken off the street and the people being prosecuted,” said Herren. “If marijuana was decriminalized those pills would have made it to the street and more people would have died.

“You can make statistics say whatever you want, but all these police executives who are in states that have decriminalized marijuana have had nothing but problems. This is from the men and women in the field ... You are going to let a genie out of the bottle you’ll never be able to get back in.”

At the end of the meeting, the Lt. Governor asked for a show of hands in support of the idea. A large number of hands went up. When he asked how many are against the idea, about a dozen hands went up. And when he asked how many were undecided, about three hands went up.

Bucks County is the 64th stop for Fetterman who is visiting all 67 Pennsylvania counties to hear what people have to say on the topic. He will be wrapping up his tour this week with a visit to Cameron County and the city of Philadelphia.

Governor Tom Wolf and the lieutenant governor announced the listening tour in January.

“More and more states are successfully implementing marijuana legalization, especially those surrounding Pennsylvania, and we should learn from their efforts, and better understand the potential fiscal impacts of this reality before taking any collective action,” said Wolf.

Both Gov. Wolf and Lt. Gov. Fetterman said they believe it is time for Pennsylvania to take a serious and honest look at legalizing recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana has been legal in Pennsylvania since 2016 and Gov. Wolf stressed that any proposal for legalizing recreational marijuana would need to be implemented after the medical marijuana program is fully implemented.

“John’s efforts will help ensure we are looking at this issue from all perspectives and from every corner of Pennsylvania,” Gov. Wolf said. “We both want to make sure the voices of all Pennsylvanians are heard.”

Those who are not able to attend or who are interested in remotely leaving a comment about legalizing recreational marijuana may submit comments via an online submission form available on the Governor’s website and the Lieutenant Governor’s Official Facebook page.

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