Interviews & Profiles

Q&A with John Fetterman

The first-term U.S. Senator discusses cannabis law and what’s holding up federal legalization

U.S. Senator John Fetterman

U.S. Senator John Fetterman Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images

If you took a trip to Harrisburg in 2020, there’s a good chance you saw then-Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s marijuana and LGBTQ+ flags waving from his balcony at the front of the state Capitol. Now a U.S. Senator, Fetterman – who made headlines for displaying the flags in defiance of a new state law – is bringing his support for cannabis legalization and criminal justice reform to Congress. 

In an exclusive one-on-one interview with the first-term senator, City & State spoke with Fetterman on current cannabis issues, the potential de-scheduling of marijuana at the federal level and Pennsylvania’s path to legalization. 

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Where do cannabis policy talks stand at the federal level and how could they impact Pennsylvania?

I have long been very clear about legal weed and I was very honored to be able to vote for the SAFER Banking Act. This month, Ohio voted to legalize weed. It’s absolutely absurd – how many states around Pennsylvania are we falling behind? I don’t know why Republicans are opposing it, because the majority of their constituents want this. It shouldn’t be that hard in Pennsylvania. 

Thinking back to your time in local and state government, criminal justice reform – specifically expungement of minor drug charges – was a focus of yours. Where did that policy priority and your focus on cannabis laws originate?

I don’t partake in it, although I’ve always maintained that it should be legal, it should be safe, it should be pure and it should be taxed. I think those funds should go toward supporting whatever the government ultimately decides to put it – whether it’s education or infrastructure. That being said, I really went into advocacy because I realized as a small-town mayor, and originally as a GED program director, that there were young people whose lives were jacked up because they had some stupid, silly weed charge. And now a criminal record is an impediment to getting back into the mainstream. 

Also, there are fights and robberies – sometimes even more tragic events – over weed. You would never have an argument over a six-pack of beer, but because weed is illicit the value is obviously distorted. Statistics show that the impact is borne disproportionately on Black and brown people, which was my community as Mayor of Braddock. There’s no medically documented THC overdose, and marijuana is not lethal at all. It’s a no-brainer. 

Speaking of those marginalized communities, how can policymakers ensure that an eventual recreational market doesn’t result in a monopoly or with Black and brown communities being left out of the industry?

You would be leaving out a disproportionate number of people in that population if we didn’t have mass expungement. I don’t think anyone thinks your life should be messed up because you have some stupid weed charge, as long as it’s nonviolent. And as lieutenant governor and head of the pardoning process, we got that process started. It’s always astonishing when you have people in front of you who can’t be a volunteer at their child’s school, can’t get a better job, can’t get a loan because 12 years ago they got caught with a joint.

You also went on a 67-county tour while lieutenant governor to hear what Pennsylvanians thought about marijuana legalization. What were some of the major takeaways from that tour?

One of the main takeaways was that everyone wanted to talk about it. The sessions were incredibly attended and the interaction online was record-breaking. Whether it was a red or a blue county, people were really respectful and it was a true conversation. We never once had pro-wrestling break out with people throwing chairs or anything like that. I miss that and I think people appreciated having that conversation. I thought it was a great model too because we didn’t leave anyone behind.

You mentioned Ohio approving legalization through a ballot measure. Can you speak on the impacts that Pennsylvania’s neighbors and their recreational markets have on the commonwealth? 

It just makes it more silly. It’s just so simple and so easy – just give people what they want. And again, make it safe, make it pure and make jobs. All the benefits are going to the cartels, but now, it should be going to the state. 

I don’t like tobacco. I’ve never used tobacco, but I think you should be able to go to Sheetz or Wawa and buy snuff, cigarettes or whatever you want, and it should be taxed. It should be fair and accessible – same with alcohol. I don’t remember the last time I even drank hard alcohol, but you should be able to buy it because we all realize what bathtub gin does to people. There are things that are so much more lethal and dangerous and addictive – you don’t have any of those issues with cannabis. 

The Drug Enforcement Administration is weighing de-scheduling marijuana at the federal level. Do you see a realistic path to passing legalization either within this Congress or just at the state level?

When I campaigned, I sat down with President Joe Biden in a room and told him it would be amazing for a lot of different reasons to de-schedule it. Joe is a man of his word … on almost the one-year anniversary, he recommended that. The fact that cannabis was de-scheduled from the deadly and highly addictive kinds of substances is a commonsense acknowledgment of where it should go. 

Legalization is inevitable. Why not just get in front of it now in Pennsylvania and do the right thing? Four or five years ago, everyone thought I was weird or just a stoner because I believed that it was the right way to go. Republicans at the time said, ‘We don’t want this and the majority of people don’t either.’ We found out we actually do, and now, we have been lapped by New York, New Jersey, Maryland, D.C. and now Ohio. 

It’s always Republicans going against something that should be common sense and that a majority of people really want – whether it’s abortion or weed. In Pennsylvania, they’re gumming it up and I suspect any national way of legalizing it will be gummed up by Republicans too. The truth is, it’s going to be legal … and in states where it has been legalized, somehow the world hasn’t spun off its axis. It wasn’t pandemonium or cats and dogs living in sin. 

Back to Special Report: Cannabis in Pennsylvania