ST. MARYS — Approximately 60 people showed up Saturday at the St. Marys Area High School auditorium to voice their opinions on legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes and hear what others in the community had to say on the issue.
The event was handled as a public forum, with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman opening the discussion by explaining the format and then turning the floor over to those in attendance.
“I want to emphasize ... that this is a straight listening tour,” Fetterman said opening the forum. “There are no right answers. There are no wrong answers. It is just strictly an opportunity for you to weigh in and give your thoughts on what your views are on recreational adult cannabis.”
He also stressed the event was to be held in a civil manner, without booing or attacking anyone, regardless of stance.
“I personally believe civility is a rare commodity in American politics these days,” he said. “I think being in a room with people that have different opinions than what you do is critical. And I want to make sure to emphasize civility.”
St. Marys Area School District Superintendent Brian Toth, who voted as undecided on the issue, spoke first, welcoming Fetterman and those in attendance and thanking them for coming. He also noted, from a school administrator’s perspective, marijuana raises the same concerns and would be handled in a similar manner to other regulated substances, such as alcohol and cigarettes.
“Overall, we want to make sure, whatever happens, that we protect our students and provide them with the guidance as they mature and graduate as to what they might walk into.”
Of those in attendance, 21 chose to speak. Speakers included 13 individuals for legalization, four against it and three who were undecided.
Many speakers gave personal accounts of how marijuana use has positively impacted their lives or the lives of those they know with health issues not covered under the state’s current medical marijuana laws. Some pointed to opioids, which they claimed were more commonly given for medical issues, as a bigger concern.
Others expressed the opinion that marijuana is less harmful than other legal but regulated substances, such as alcohol.
While the majority of speakers supported legalization, many expressed a desire to ensure the substance is properly regulated before throwing full support behind legalization.
“I think it should be legalized if and only if those regulations can be enforced and are effective,” Baird Bankovic, student representative to the St. Marys Area School District board, said. “If not, I don’t see a ... social benefit to legalizing marijuana.”
Others, including long-time probation officer for the county Joseph Daghir, expressed concern over a lack of research on marijuana due to its status as a federal Schedule I narcotic and reserved judgement until more information was available.
“Medical marijuana, medical drugs — great. However, we need more research,” Daghir said. “We need federal monies to research this. We can’t make this decision. We need experts.”
On the other hand, four speakers opposed legalization outright, including St. Marys Deputy Mayor and Elk County Prison Warden Greg Gebauer.
“You wanna talk about marijuana, you’re going to have the same issue,” he said citing driving under the influence.
He also noted combining substance use with mental health issues raises concerns.
“That can be catastrophic,” Gebauer said. “You not only have to think about what you want ... but I have to think about what I want. My safety, my safety for my family, my safety for my friends and my safety for the community... I believe if you make marijuana legal, it’s just going to intensify the whole issue.”
A vote by show of hands at the end of the event saw approximately half of those present in favor, about a quarter opposed, a handful undecided and a number of individuals not raising their hand at all.
The stop was the 17th of the tour. Fetterman is planning to visit each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.