With NORML endorsement, Hanger continues pot conquest for PA Governor — but will it work?
When the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) announced yesterday that they would be endorsing former Department of Environmental Protection secretary John Hanger for Governor of Pennsylvania, it wasn’t much of a surprise.
Hanger’s already established himself as the pro-pot candidate for the 2014 gubernatorial race. He regularly speaks at legalization rallies and released a three-step plan to implement a full recreational legalization program in the commonwealth by 2017.
“Hanger is the only candidate who isn’t afraid to openly discuss and campaign on a platform that calls for widespread reform of Pennsylvania’s marijuana laws,” noted NORML Communications Director Erik Altieri during the endorsement. “Since the start of his campaign, John Hanger has been a passionate and outspoken advocate of ending Pennsylvania’s war on marijuana and moving the state towards a smarter approach.”
He’s right. Top-tier candidates Rep. Allyson Schwartz and Treasurer Rob McCord have been mum about marijuana legalization. I’ve seen footage of candidate Katie McGinty openly saying no, she does not support legalization.
Hanger, on the other hand, is hanging his nomination on it.
“Pennsylvania voters have told politicians—especially Democratic politicians—that they can no longer be supporting these detestable [marijuana prohibition] laws,” he told Philadelphia Weekly before a protest in September. “And I believe this issue will win me the nomination.”
That last part may be wishful thinking.
In a statewide poll released in May, Franklin and Marshall polling asked respondents whether medical marijuana should be legal if “prescribed by a doctor”—and that garnered 82 percent support. Recreational support is around 40 percent.
But while such issues have risen rapidly over the years, there’s little reason to believe a majority of Democratic primary voters would base their May 2014 vote around this singular issue.
“We have large numbers of Democrats who are culturally conservative who are not likely to vote for it,” says G. Terry Madonna, Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at F&M. “If a doctor prescribes it, over 80 percent of the public favor that. But my sense is that the legislature will be reluctant to go there, even though it has lots of support.”
Amongst the most ardent supporters of marijuana, there is often little uniformity.
“I’m not in favor of electioneering for various reasons,” says Vanessa Maria, an activist who has been affiliated with NORML and the Smokedown Prohibition protests at Independence Mall in the past. “One of the reasons I have major concerns with John Hanger is his role as the former director of the DEP.”
Specifically, she says: his stance on fracking. It’s something about which she feels strongly enough that she’s not willing to support Hanger.
And Maria, who recently started a splinter pro-pot group, called the Cannabis Justice Coalition, may not be alone. Pennsylvanians generally care more about the energy and the natural gas drilling issue than they do about legalizing pot, and Hanger does not support the Democratic party platform of a moratorium on fracking. Rather, he’s prepared to tax fracking heavily. And to be fair, there are no viable candidates running for governor who would ban fracking.
“He supports an issue which I really care about, which is marijuana legalization and reform. On the other hand, I’m getting totally screwed on another issue I care about,” she adds. “I think that’s the problem with party politics in general. We’re not single-issue people. We care about a lot of things. Not just legalizing cannabis.”
Marijuana legalization is one of those issues that garners a wide range of political candidates. Pols at rallies often include Green Party candidates, Socialists, Libertarians and Democrats. Many are often fringe.
The other issue to keep in mind: Hanger’s idea is moot if he can’t get the legislature to go along with his three-point plan. As Madonna puts it, rather bluntly: “You’re talking about a legislature that can’t do anything significant.”
For Hanger’s idea to be worth its weight, Sen. Daylin Leach’s legalization bill would have to go through both the state Senate and state House. If it doesn’t reach his desk, there’s nothing Hanger can to do make pot politics law.
“In my mind, if we’re going to do electioneering, I think time would be better spent getting representatives and senators elected who support legalization,” continues Maria. “They’re the ones that really…have to argue for the legislation to really get it passed.”
Which isn’t to say NORML’s endorsement is not significant. It is. NORML is the largest nonprofit in the U.S. seeking—and largely succeeding—to change the laws around marijuana use in the U.S. This is their first endorsement of a candidate for Pennsylvania governor. Marijuana is largely seen as a litmus test in the state as to whether one considers herself liberal or conservative. Whether or not that translates into statewide election votes is yet to be seen.
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