John Hanger was excited. His run for governor of Pennsylvania had just received a "major endorsement" — from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws PAC.
Other pols might scoff: According to a recent Harper poll, Hanger is running fourth in a six-person race to win the Democratic nomination and the right to face off against Gov. Tom Corbett in 2014. But "for a lot of people in this state, this is the top issue in their lives," Hanger told City Paper on Nov. 14. "And if I'm elected, I support expunging the criminal records of anyone convicted of possessing small amounts of cannabis."
Next year's primary, he predicted, "will be a referendum in reforming and legalizing marijuana laws." And Hanger has gone all-in. He's touting a three-step plan "to allow medical cannabis, decriminalize possession and, by 2017, to regulate and tax marijuana in Pennsylvania."
"I don't want to arrest and lock up thousands of Pennsylvanians every year for possessing and using small amounts of marijuana," Hanger said. "I think if people come out and vote in favor of their liberties in May, then we will win the primary."
Pot legalization has been gaining traction in Pennsylvania. On Nov. 18, one of the state's most liberal legislators, state Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Philadelphia), joined with a conservative Senate colleague, Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon), to introduce legislation to legalize the medical use of marijuana. Folmer has battled cancer in the past, and has said he's seen patients who would have benefited from using the drug, which can ease suffering and mitigate side effects from chemotherapy.
"Adding Mike Folmer as a co-sponsor to this bill has improved its chances of passage immeasurably," says Harrisburg political analyst Tony May, a partner with lobbying firm Triad Strategies. "Folmer comes with a credibility that he has earned at a very high cost.
"It really is an issue whose time has come in Pennsylvania."
In May, a Franklin & Marshall poll found support of legalization reaching new highs. A whopping 82 percent of respondents favored legalizing pot for medical use. Opposition to full legalization is waning. In 2006, 72 percent opposed legalization. In May, opposition had dwindled to 54 percent.
Is it realistic to think the issue can have an effect on the governor's race?
Hanger is "likely to be the test case when it comes to running on this issue," May says. While support for loosening marijuana laws is growing, he notes, "the question not being asked is how important is this issue to you as a voter. Our experience with wedge issues is that there are a limited number of people who vote solely on that issue."
But this is no ordinary primary. Six Democrats have lined up for the chance to try to prevent Tom Corbett from seeing a second term; former auditor general and Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Jack Wagner is also said to be weighing a run. In a crowded field, Hanger's pro-pot stance could help distinguish him.
"From John's perspective, the more candidates who stay in, the better," says May. "I think there will be something to be said about a candidate who's willing to be open-minded."
Attorney Patrick Nightingale, executive director of Pittsburgh NORML, agrees Hanger has set himself apart from the field by "making the legalization of cannabis an essential part of his platform."
"The majority of our politicians here in Pennsylvania, including our governor and attorney general, still live in a 1930s Reefer Madness kind of world and perpetuate the ridiculous ‘gateway drug' myth while ignoring all of the studies that show the exact opposite," Nightingale says. "No other candidate is touching this issue, let alone embracing it like John Hanger.
"I know all the jokes about pothead voters, but we have the opportunity to tell cannabis reformers that because of the climate, and because of the crowded field for governor, your vote can count. And if we can get 5 to 10 percent of that vote out, I believe Mr. Hanger will win that nomination."