John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s current lieutenant governor and Democratic candidate for a Senate seat this year, does not frequently mince words.
The 53-year-old is well-known for skewering his opponents on Twitter; for his everyman uniform of hooded sweatshirts and jeans and for his expletive-laden merchandise that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his campaign.
On Monday, Fetterman aimed his unfiltered style at none other than the President of the United States, tweeting that Joe Biden has “the power to use your executive authority to chart a new course” on the criminal status of marijuana a day before Biden visited the Keystone State.
Fetterman shared the story of Paul Ezell, a Pennsylvania eye doctor who spent 6 months in jail and had his medical license revoked after pleading guilty to a felony drug charge for marijuana in 2014. Ezell was growing the plants for his late wife, who was dying of cancer, in an effort to mitigate her pain and reduce her dependence on opioids.
Ezell’s arrest came just two years before Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana for limited use, and was ultimately pardoned by Gov. Tim Wolf last year.
“It’s long past time that we finally decriminalize marijuana,” Fetterman wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Too many lives like Paul's have been destroyed by misguided policy most Americans want to see reformed.”
It’s a long-held stance for the lieutenant governor, who in 2019 held a “listening tour” of the state to hear residents’ views on marijunana, the majority of whom were in favor of decriminalizing the drug, to some extent, in Pennsylvania.
Fetterman’s campaign website goes a step further, saying he will fight to deschedule marijuana at the federal level. Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, which the government defines as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” a class that also contains heroin and ecstasy.
To date, 19 states and Washington, D.C., have passed laws that – to varying degrees – allow for the use of medical or recreational marijuana, though the rules vary across each state line.
Fetterman also wants to “expunge the records of those convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses, and prevent the monopolization of this vibrant new industry,” per his campaign website.
While marijuana-related arrests have decreased over the past decade, thousands of Americans are still arrested each year for allegedly breaking federal laws relating to the drug. According to data from the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 2,576 marijuana-related arrests in 2020; just over 1,000 people were sentenced for breaking federal marijuana trafficking laws that year.
Those arrests came as a growing majority of Americans believe marijuana should be decriminalized, at least to some extent, at either the federal or state levels, with one Pew Research poll in 2019 finding around 67% of the country thinking the use of marijuana should be made legal.
Those numbers are even higher for the younger generations, with 76% of Millenial respondents – or those born between 1981 - 1997 – supporting legalization, compared to 65% and 63% for Generation X and Boomer respondents, respectively.
Fetterman on Monday also took aim at his opponent in the Senate race, Dr. Mehmet Oz, for his stance on marijuana, writing in part: “I don’t want to hear any [b*******] coming out of Dr. Oz’s campaign trying to conflate decriminalizing marijuana with seriously harmful crime. Are we supposed to believe that neither he nor any members of his staff have ever used marijuana???”
Dr. Oz in May spoke out against a recent push in Pennsylvania to legalize recreational marijuana, claiming, without evidence, that it would make Pennsylvanians less likely to seek out work.
"There are not enough Pennsylvanians to work in Pennsylvania, so giving them pot so they stay home is not, I don't think, an ideal move," he said in an interview with Newsmax at the time, adding: "I don't want young people to think they have to smoke a joint to get out of their house in the morning [...] We need to get Pennsylvanians back at work."
In fact, recent case studies have shown the opposite is more likely to be true. Researchers from the University of New Mexico and California Polytechnic University examined the impact of Colorado’s marijuana legalization on the state’s labor markets and found “the sale of recreational cannabis through dispensaries is associated with a 0.7 percentage point decrease in the unemployment rate with no effect on the size of the labor force.”
“We also find a 4.5% increase in the number of employees, with the strongest effects found in manufacturing. We find no effect on wages,” the report added.
Should Fetterman win his race – which appears increasingly likely, with numerous polls placing Oz far behind his Democratic opponent – he is likely to find Senate allies willing to push Biden for marijuana decriminalization as well.
In July, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and other Democrats penned a letter to Biden requesting the administration “use its existing authority to (i) deschedule cannabis and (ii) issue pardons to all individuals convicted of nonviolent cannabis-related offenses.”
Soon after, the Senate released its Cannabis Administration and Opportunity (CAO) Act, which would remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I drugs and seeks to regulate it at the federal level.
But it does not appear to be gaining much momentum either in Congress or at the White House.
When asked about the administration’s view on the issue, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said there were no new announcements, but added the president “supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states; rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts; and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records.”
Still, Fetterman said he plans to discuss the issue with Biden during the president’s visit to Pittsburgh on Labor Day, a trip which is meant to celebrate the “dignity of American workers,” per the White House.
"Fetterman's a hell of a guy, a powerful voice for working people and he's going to make a great United States Senator,” Biden said during a visit to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, an event that Fetterman did not attend. Biden did not mention Fetterman's comments on marijuana during his speech, which he used to announce his "Safer America Plan" to combat crime.