How a 6-foot-8 steel-town mayor became 2020’s unlikely legalization rock star

Published on December 9, 2020
John Fetterman went from the mayor of Braddock, PA, to statewide office—and took his outspoken advocacy for legalization with him. (Leafly illustration)

If you happened to visit the Pennsylvania state capital recently, you may have been surprised to find a large cannabis leaf flag flying high over the building’s main entrance.

It’s a particularly jarring sight considering that police in Pennsylvania made 21,789 arrests in 2019 for cannabis possession, and show no signs of stopping—because Republicans in control of the state legislature continue to block every attempt to enter the world of legal weed.

That explains why Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has taken to letting his freak flag fly, specifically from the balcony of his second floor office in the capital building. He made his views clear in this portrait with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf:

From that same balcony Fetterman also proudly displays an LGBTQ-rights flag, in protest of those same Republican lawmakers’ ongoing opposition to a bill banning employment discrimination based on sexual or gender identity.

The flags have met with some backlash, but the Lt. Governor remains undeterred.  

‘America’s coolest mayor’ goes statewide

Thrust into the national spotlight during Pennsylvania’s recent Trump-driven election drama, John Fetterman has long been known to cannabis advocates as an outspoken and unwavering champion of legalization—going all the way back to his time as a small-town mayor.

First elected by the citizens of Braddock, PA, in 2005 by a single vote, he soon made national headlines and earned high praise as “America’s coolest mayor.”

Since taking office, Fetterman has relentlessly pressed for legalization in Pennsylvania. A marijuana flag currently flies outside his Capitol office.

A sturdily-built, six-foot-eight, 51-year-old son of the Rust Belt, Fetterman sports more hair on his chin than his head, and favors steel-grey work shirts over the politician’s standard suit and tie. By focusing on developing youth programs, attracting artists and creatives, renovating old buildings in eco-friendly ways, and investing in community programs and outreach, Fetterman turned Braddock into a lively town on the rise.

After winning re-election several times by wide margins, he ran for statewide office in 2018 and pulled an upset by defeating the Democratic incumbent in the primary, then riding Gov. Tom Wolfe’s re-election into office. (In Pennsylvania, candidates for lieutenant governor run separately in the primary, then the winner is attached to the party’s gubernatorial candidate in the general election.)

Since taking office, Fetterman has relentlessly pressed for legalization in his home state, speaking with voters directly, making his case via dozens of social media posts, and—yesterday—penning his own Washington Post op-ed calling for an end to prohibition.

Q&A with Fetterman

Leafly spoke with Fetterman via Zoom just hours after Pennsylvania certified its 2020 general election results.

Leafly: How did legalization become so personally important to you?

That’s easy. I was a small-town mayor of a community of color. I originally started out working with the young people there [as a community organizer], and a lot of them had stupid marijuana charges. Just nickel-and-dime stuff that would stop them from going forward in their lives.

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Meanwhile, prohibition is just useless. A total waste. It’s absurd that this ever was an issue, quite frankly. If you’re anti-weed-legalization, then logically you should also be against the legalization of cigarettes and alcohol. Because those two substances kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, and you can walk into any convenience store and buy them en masse.

You can also gamble away your life savings at a state-sponsored casino.

But in Pennsylvania, get caught with a little weed and you’re a fucking criminal for the rest of your life.

Leafly: In 2020, at the top of the ticket, the Democrats hadJoe Biden, whose position on legalization…

Was cowardly. It was cowardly. You gotta call it what it is.

Here’s a hard incontrovertible fact. When it comes to weed, the Democratic Party’s platform was to the right of South Dakota’s voters [who approved legalization]. Which is absurd. Because if you are to the right of South Dakota on anything, you need to sit down and reevaluate your life.

It was cowardly before the election, and now it’s straight-up embarrassing. And I hope you quote me on that.

The Roll-Up #89: Joe Biden Takes the Coward’s Path

Leafly: So you believe Democrats left votes on table by not embracing legalization?

I’ll do you one better. Democrats risked losing the election.

During the campaign, I predicted that if either candidate announced their support for legal weed, that candidate would win the presidency. .

We ended up winning by a couple hundred thousand votes, maybe, spread over six states. If Trump had backed legalization, that would have created a tsunami of support and excitement and new voters. It would have been game over for Democrats.

And meanwhile, you know who ended up winning biggest on Election Day? Legal weed!

Legal weed killed it on the ballot in 2020.

Could Trump pull a ‘cannabis surprise’ in 2020? It’s not impossible

Leafly: You recently went on a listening tour of every county in Pennsylvania and talked to a lot of people about cannabis. What did you learn?

Veterans jumped out more than anybody. We had so many veterans come out, often in tears, just saying, “These fuckers call me a criminal because I use a plant that makes me feel normal. The VA will give me as many pills as I want, but I’m a criminal if I use weed.”

It’s a disgrace.

Leafly: New Jersey voters just approved legalization by a large margin, and the state is moving towards opening cannabis stores. Does sharing a border with a legal state help boost your efforts?

Legalization is inevitable here in Pennsylvania. It has to happen.

Forty percent of our residents are going to be a grocery store length drive away from a Candyland of legal weed [in New Jersey]. And then Virginia’s gonna legalize. And New York probably.

How far behind do we want to fall before we stop the injustice of cannabis arrests and the economic loss of people driving to buy weed in a neighboring state where it’s legal?

Leafly: What’s the latest status on your weed flag? And how did that whole thing start?

I have a balcony that’s kind of prime real estate optically in the Pennsylvania State Capitol. I started flying a Pride flag because in my state Republicans in the legislature are blocking protections for that community. I also fly a weed flag because the Republicans are blocking legalization.

It’s important for me to run on what’s right, and if you think we should criminalize a plant and punish people for the rest of their lives who get caught using it, I legitimately look forward to you voting for the other person.

Does the legislature’s recent “flag amendment” pertain specifically to you?

Yes, it was clearly targeted to me. [A Republican-sponsored amendment in a current state budget-related bill would ban the flying of any flag other than the U.S., Pennsylvania, or POW/MIA flag on the Capitol building’s exterior.]

And it’s just like LOL. What are they gonna do? Call up the Gay Flag Police to come get them? And meanwhile all they’re doing is just elevating the issue even more.

They have this idea that you can silence and stop the conversation.

If the amendment passes will you continue to fly those flags?

Oh yeah. I just bought new ones. 100% they’re going up.

It’s free speech. You’re not gonna tell me what I can say or do out of my office.

I’ve always been for legalization because I’ve always known that it was the right thing. Even when it was unpopular. Even when it was considered too far out by a lot of people. Even though I’m not a consumer of it myself.

Leafly: In 2020, Oregon and Washington DC voters approved initiatives moving towards decriminalizing psilocybin mushrooms? Do you support that?

Yes, and that needs to happen here. Nobody produces more mushrooms than Pennsylvania. We are the [culinary] mushroom capital of the world.

Our state could embrace hemp, weed and mushrooms in a way that would make us a leader, instead staying afraid and stuck in Reefer Madness.

Oregon voters also approved an initiative decriminalizing all drugs. Do you back that as well?


And I would simply ask anyone: “How has criminalizing addiction worked out for us?”

Are you ready to give that up? I am.

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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