The race for a United States Senate seat in Pennsylvania is putting drug policy reform in the spotlight, with the GOP candidate known best as Dr. Oz and the national Republican party evidently convinced that an effective line of attack is to challenge the Democratic nominee’s support for issues like marijuana legalization and harm reduction policies.
The contest between Mehmet Oz and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) has become something of a political spectacle, largely playing out on Twitter where the dueling campaigns have competed to score the best own on a daily basis.
But in terms of substantive policy issues, the race has revealed a deep disconnect between how each candidate thinks voters feel about drug-related issues.
Oz has lobbed attacks at Fetterman over his long record of supporting reform, and the Republican National Committee (RNC) has similarly seized on the issue, misleadingly casting the state official as a “radical” supporter of policies like legalizing heroin, for example.
All of this is despite the fact that, in 2020, Oz himself called marijuana “one of the most underused tools in America” and said that the country should “completely change our policy on marijuana.”
In one new ad, Oz’s campaign criticized Fetterman’s support for cannabis legalization with an animated video that showed a bong coming out of the candidate’s head. “What’s this?” the narrator asks, coughing.
Oz, a celebrity doctor who long hosted a daytime TV show, also appeared on Fox News and made dismissive comments about the “pot flag” that the lieutenant governor hung on the balcony of his Capitol office as he pushed for legalization in the Keystone State.
Former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) also talked about the marijuana flag last month, falsely claiming the lieutenant governor swapped it for the American flag.
With numerous polls showing growing, bipartisan support for ending prohibition—including one from last year that found 58 percent of Pennsylvanians back the policy—the idea that promoting an anti-legalization narrative would appeal to voters is questionable.
Meanwhile, RNC has also challenged Fetterman over drug policy reform proposals he’s expressed openness to, including harm reduction programs like syringe service programs (SSP) and safe consumption sites (SCS). The committee’s research arm clipped audio from a 2018 interview with the lieutenant governor, where he talked about those policies as possible tools to combat the overdose crisis.
Again, national polling shows majority, bipartisan support for harm reduction policies such as SCS and SSP. It’s an issue that Pennsylvania voters may be more familiar with than most, as a nonprofit’s attempt to open an SCS in Philadelphia has been dragged into court following a legal challenge by the Justice Department under the Trump administration.
The RNC post misleadingly suggests that the candidate has called for for legalizing heroin—but, before the clip was cut off, Fetterman was talking about his conversations about responding to the overdose crisis with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he said a political staffer seemed to have misinterpreted his policy stance in that way.
In reality, the official has voiced support for decriminalizing drug possession to center substance use as a public health issue, rather than a criminal legal problem.
But even Fetterman’s decriminalization position has permeated into conservative media, characterized as an example of a problematically “woke” policy. For what it’s worth, 60 percent of Pennsylvanians said they support drug decriminalization in a May 2021 poll.
In any case, the Democratic nominee hasn’t shied away from his drug policy reform platform. For example, he’s commented on his jealousy that New Jersey cannabis sales launched while Pennsylvania has yet to enact legalization and he’s persisted in making people aware of an expedited pardon process he’s championed for people with “bullshit” marijuana convictions.
The official, who serves as chair of the state Board of Pardons, has said that one of his key goals in his final year in office is to ensure that as many eligible people as possible submit applications to have the courts remove their cannabis records and restore opportunities to things like housing, student financial aid and employment through an expedited petition program.
“This is a plant that’s legal in many jurisdictions across America, and it’s not a big deal, but you go through your life in many cases a convicted felon, and that excludes you from a lot of opportunities,” he said prior to announcing his Senate run. “So I developed an expedited review process that I encourage everybody to partake in.”
As a general matter, Oz has also sought to depict Fetterman as a soft-on-crime candidate. For example, he’s misleadingly suggested that the Democrat wants to release one-third of the state’s incarcerated population, when the official had quoted the head of the Department of Corrections, who said that could be accomplished without risk to the public.
After Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) endorsed marijuana legalization, Fetterman also led a statewide listening tour to hear what residents had to say about the policy proposal. He touted his role in that tour on his Senate campaign website.
He also talked about his work to “legalize weed for jobs, justice, veterans, farmers and revenue” in a fundraising email early in 2022.
Fetterman previously said that farmers in his state could grow better marijuana than people in New Jersey—and that was one reason why Pennsylvania should expeditiously reform its cannabis laws.
In 2020, he hosted a virtual forum where he got advice on how to effectively implement a cannabis system from the lieutenant governors of Illinois and Michigan, which have enacted legalization.
Meanwhile, as Oz attacks Fetterman over cannabis reform, he’s personally touted the therapeutic potential of marijuana and called for a fundamental reshaping of federal cannabis policy.
He also said that representatives from the Drug Enforcement Administration and Food and Drug Administration have each told him they’re on board with legalizing marijuana—and that the agencies blame each other for blocking efforts to end prohibition.
“[Marijuana is] a lot safer than alcohol,” Oz said. “It’s safer than narcotics. It ought to be used more widely and we can’t even study it that easily because of the way it’s regulated.”
Oz, who previously asserted that marijuana could represent a tool to combat the overdose crisis and has made other public comments about the plant’s therapeutic potential, said he’s “hoping the federal government at some point—someone’s going to say, ‘Come on, this is a farce, open it up for the entire country.’ That way, the right people can begin to prescribe it.”
The celebrity doctor has separately clarified that he hasn’t used cannabis and has not, despite one company’s claim, endorsed a line of CBD products.
“I have never smoked pot in my life, never gotten high, and I only bring that up because I’m not someone who’s saying this because I personally would use it,” he previously said. “I just, as a doctor, think it makes sense.”
Photograph via Mehmet Oz/Twitter