The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Get with the program. Legalize weed.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in 2019. (Marc Levy/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

John Fetterman, a Democrat, is the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.

Decades ago, our country outlawed a plant. This plant, then as now, has never resulted in a single overdose death. Since the plant is an outlaw, you’ll be branded one if you’re unlucky enough to get arrested for casually consuming it.

What a profoundly odd and destructive national fixation — one that seems more like superstition than rational argument.

So how do you convince a nation that something that could easily and benignly grow next to your prized tomatoes is a weed from hell coming for your children?

That was the work of “Reefer Madness,” the 1930s anti-weed propaganda paid for by a church group that wanted to scare anyone who ever thought of smoking a joint. I highly recommend giving it a fresh watch. Look at the imagery. Take in the propaganda. Realize that there was an orchestrated effort to criminalize it in a way that would be hilarious if not so sinister and destructive.

It needs to be said: Just legalize it already.

On Friday, the House of Representatives voted for the MORE Act to decriminalize cannabis. A decision by the Senate awaits, probably in the new year.

The sovereign nation of Canada is way ahead of us. Canadian lawmakers legalized cannabis in 2018. Miraculously, Canada hasn’t slid into anarchy and chaos.

South Dakota just voted for legal weed. That’s not a typo. Arguably one the most conservative states in our Union just voted to make cannabis legal. Arizona just voted to allow you to grow up to 12 plants at home.

But in my home state of Pennsylvania, you’d be a felon for life and literally go to prison for years for doing the same.

A recent Gallup poll found nearly 70 percent of Americans favor legalization. I can’t say that came as a surprise.

In 2019, I traveled to every one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to talk with everyone about legal weed for our state. In some of the reddest counties in the United States — counties that just recently voted for President Trump by margins in excess of 80 percent — there was robust support for legalization.

In my report submitted to Gov. Tom Wolf (D), I estimated support for legal weed at a floor of 65 percent — to just below 70 percent, based on what people said on the tour. This was, by the way, in keeping with the various polls showing a majority of Pennsylvanians favor legalization.

Not only isn’t weed “taboo,” but everyone wants to talk about it. It might be the most hotly discussed public policy topic in our commonwealth over the past 50 years.

Yet one group doesn’t seem to be keeping up: the Democratic Party. Its platform on weed is now officially and politically to the right of the state of South Dakota. I’m in the camp that says that if you’re to the right of South Dakota on anything, you should use that as a moment to recalibrate your core values.

It must be said: Democrats’ historical and current platform on weed is cowardly and on the wrong side of history. We have known for decades that Black and brown communities are disproportionately prosecuted and harmed, but the federal government and many states haven’t done anything to stop it.

The Democratic Party owes its electoral successes in this election to Black and brown communities, and they are vastly disproportionately impacted by the absurd and punitive belief that cannabis is a dangerous drug.

Full-on legalization is the only just step to reconcile this. Go full Canada. Mass expungement. Over-invest in the same communities so harmed by this.

Want to know what the gold standard looks like? Look to Illinois and its thoughtful, informed path to legalization, which prioritizes investments in those communities.

The criminalization of cannabis has kept many Americans mired in stigma and legal trouble that can endure for a lifetime. There are people who can’t even chaperone their kids’ field trips because they got a simple, nonviolent marijuana conviction 30 years ago, when they were 18. I know this because I’ve helped many get pardons.

Under the brutal fiscal and unemployment realities created by this pandemic, it’s utterly unthinkable that we continue to allow drug cartels to continue making long-term billions from a plant we could simply choose to legalize and say yes to as a nation.

Added tax revenue. Equitable justice and greater freedom. More jobs. New crops for farmers. Affordable access for veterans who use it as medicine for post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s literally something for everyone when we turn our backs on the superstition of “Reefer Madness.”

In Pennsylvania and in most states, it is perfectly legal to wake up in the morning, smoke a carton of Marlboros, chug a fifth of vodka, take a pinch of Copenhagen, pop an OxyContin and gamble away your entire life savings in a state-approved casino. But get caught with marijuana, and you’re branded a criminal for life.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Marijuana decriminalization just took a big step forward in Congress

Terry McAuliffe and Don Scott: Virginia can’t have marijuana legalization without equity

The Post’s View: Voters made clear: The war on drugs isn’t working

Grover Norquist: The real mandate Americans voted for is to be left alone

Danielle Allen: The results of our national election may tell a story of division. Ballot measures tell a different tale.