One thing is for sure: the culture around marijuana has changed. That’s according to John, a Greene County resident and regular recreational user of cannabis, whose full name is being withheld for his privacy.
When he was growing up in the late 60s, with Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd playing on the radio, smoking marijuana and hash was nothing to the prevalent LSD and preludes, he recalls.
But now, with the country stewing in a devastating opioid epidemic, the perception is different.
Still, he said, marijuana isn’t the problem.
“Let’s get real,” said John. “Marijuana isn’t going to kill anyone.”
In the last few months, Pennsylvania’s ongoing debate over recreational marijuana has heated up. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman embarked on a “listening tour,” visiting all 67 counties in the state with the intention of gathering data and gauging public opinion.
“We’re here to talk about recreational, adult-use cannabis,” he said during his Greene County stop, in February.
In Greene County, the issue of decriminalizing marijuana has caused sharp division—and not just across party lines.
For Blair Zimmerman, commissioner, it’s simple. After losing two brothers to drug overdoses—one by heroin and one by cocaine—he doesn’t feel the state can justify decriminalizing a “gateway drug.”
“When people get to a point that they’re not getting the high or satisfaction, they leave that and go to something else,” Zimmerman said.
For the most part, it seems, his constituents agree. In other counties, Fetterman said the majority of residents were pro-legalization, but the Greene County stop of Fetterman’s tour, the crowd seemed to be split.
This is frustrating for recreational users like John, who claim to use the drug responsibly and feel legalization would only benefit the state, bringing in significant revenue that would, in turn, reduce property taxes.
But Zimmerman said there are still many reasons to oppose decriminalization. He’s worked heavily on the county’s Overdose Task Force since its inception last year, and he believes there could be a connection between recreational drug use and narcotics.
John believes that his peers are fooled by misconceptions and persistent stigmas, drawing undue connections between marijuana and hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. For him, marijuana isn’t about “getting all messed up.” He can go about his day, he said. It’s a “completely different high.”
“That’s what the whole problem is,” John said. “They think because you smoke cannabis that you are a hardcore druggie. They are completely wrong.”
On a personal level, knowing both of his deceased brothers started careers of drug use with marijuana, Zimmerman can’t support it. He’s also concerned that marijuana is detectable in a drug test even several weeks after use, and he believes policing drivers under the influence will become much more complex.
“There are so many pieces to this puzzle,” he said.
John agrees that some regulation is necessary: people shouldn’t be allowed to just smoke on the streets, he said, and they shouldn’t be able to carry more than half an ounce at a time. Additionally, with new breathalyzer technology, it should be easier than ever. With the right regulation, John thinks decriminalization can benefit taxpayers.
“I think marijuana would be the biggest step Pennsylvania could make,” John said. “I pay so high a property tax in Greene County, that it is unbelievable. If they would legalize marijuana, my property tax would probably go 90% away.”
Zimmerman doesn’t think the monetary benefit can offset the potential dangers. That’s not a good enough reason, he said.
“State government is just looking for another source of money; they’re not considering what can happen to a lot of people,” Zimmerman said. “They are just looking at the almighty dollar.”
At this point in the debate, Pennsylvanians are looking to the examples set by other states, namely Colorado. Following the trend, some legislators think the decision should lie with constituents.
“Vermont is the only state to do this through the legislative process. All the others did it through a ballot initiative, letting the people decide,” said Rep. Pam Snyder, in a statement. “That is the way I believe Pennsylvania should do it also. I am open to a legislative discussion on decriminalizing it, but I think for an issue like this, the people need to decide.”
So far, “the people” have decided to decriminalize in at least 10 states. In Pennsylvania, the debate continues.