By Erik Altieri, NORML Communications Director
While the general election for governor is still a little over a year away, things are heating up in Pennsylvania as Democrats vie for their party's nomination to run against incumbent Governor Corbett (R). Seven candidates have so far announced their candidacy and one of them, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection John Hanger, is running on a pro-marijuana law reform platform and wants to not only decriminalize cannabis and allow for its medical use, he wants to see it fully legalized by 2017.
With a crowded field, and no required run-off election, it is likely the winner of the primary will be decided by several thousand Pennsylvania voters. John Hanger sees this unique situation as not only a boon for his campaign, but for the marijuana law reform issue. "Marijuana law reform has power to elect next governor," John Hanger stated, "If just 1 out of 3 monthly marijuana users vote, we will win."
John Hanger discussed his plans for marijuana law reform in a telephone interview with NORML Communications Director Erik Altieri. The transcript of that conversation is below:
What was the impetus for taking up the issue of marijuana law reform?
John Hanger: The tipping point for me was just running for governor and realizing that I'll be in charge of implementing laws, that in the case of marijuana, are unjust. I don't want to be in the position of enforcing unjust laws. I take doing the right thing seriously. I don't want to deny cannabis to a sick child because our laws require me to do that as governor. I want to campaign to change unjust laws so I don't have to administer unjust laws.
I've been coming to terms with the seriousness of running for governor and being governor. The marijuana laws in Pennsylvania are unjust. It goes beyond medical marijuana, the criminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana is unjust, it is destroying people's lives. It is branding them as drug criminals for the rest of their lives. It's hurting them in a way that three presidents of the United States have not been hurt for their behavior. It is beyond hypocritical.
I'm also very focused on making sure the Pennsylvania budget is invested in the real needs of our state. There is never enough money for all the things that need to happen. There are very important services that are underfunded, but we are spending 350 million dollars enforcing these unjust laws. It means less money for schools, less money for health, less money for roads and bridges. It is destructive to other vital needs in Pennsylvania.
When you look at whats right and come to the conclusion these laws must be reformed, the public is with us on medical marijuana and decriminalization...the public is ahead of the politicians on the first two steps and I'm leading on the third step. I'm working to champion and build to the third step, legalization, because it is the right thing to do. I crafted this three step reform plan because this will allow PA's to have confidence in moving through each step.
What has the reception to your marijuana reform platform been like?
JH: In terms of the overall reaction it has been positive. The public is well ahead of the politicians when it comes to medical marijuana and decriminalization. So this is an issue that the public opinion is forming and building, and building towards the right result.
Around 60% of Democrats support legalization nationwide, about 70% of the highly coveted independent demographic support it, why do you think, by and large, other Democrats and politicians have been hesitant to take up the issue?
JH: I think it is a mixture of not wanting to lead, not wanting to stick one's neck out. The old saying in politics is that politicians wait for a parade to form and then run to the front to lead it. Most politicians are risk averse. Many politicians, I think, put their finger up in the air and wait to see which way is the wind is blowing and only when the wind is blowing strongly they move. That's the normal political animal reaction to issues.
Quite frankly, I'm not a politician. I ran two state agencies...I got into public policy and public life to make changes and help people's real lives. I haven't spent my career climbing up a political ladder, thats not my motivation. My motivation is to address real problems in people's lives and make people's lives better. For me, this issue is about doing the right thing. I'm going to do the right thing and I think that it is also going to be smart thing politically.
Why do you think, so far, Pennsylvania has failed to move forward a medical or decriminalization bill? What will it take for that to happen?
JH: I think we haven't had leadership in the governor's office. The governor has the biggest office, the bully pulpit. It effects how people think about issues, has tremendous influence on legislators. I do know how to get things done in Pennsylvania, we never had a governor to get this done in Pennsylvania. When a governor like me is leading the charge it goes to the top of the priority list. I know how to build public support to get major things done. I built my work in state government going back to Casey admin. I've been working on policy getting things done in and out of state government for 29 years.
Quite frankly Governor Corbett, regardless of his politics, is not competent at the nuts and bolts of governing and has been hostile to marijuana reform. Beating him will send a huge message around the country, winning the primary sends a huge message to Democrats that they need to move [on marijuana reform]. When I win the primary, they are going to understand a major reason for my victory will be marijuana reform.
What can Pennsylvanians do to help advance marijuana law reform?
JH: The single best way is to make sure I win the Democratic primary. My candidacy is the equivalent of a marijuana referenda on the ballot. By voting for me you are voting for marijuana reform. Politicians will no longer be able to be on the wrong side of this issue.
Thats what happens, we can win this issue in May 2014, by my winning that primary. It will shock the political establishment and accelerate the changing of the laws by years in Pennsylvania and around the country. I believe Pennsylvania is seen as a bellwether. If marijuana reform can win in Pennsylvania, it can win anywhere.
NORML's constituency group is a great group of people who are fighting for justice and fighting injustice. The great news is that we can win this battle in PA in just 8 months, thats exciting.
(VOTER NOTE: Pennsylvania has closed primaries. If you wish to vote in the Democratic primary in May of 2014, you would have to be registered Democrat before that election. There is no Republican primary this year. The incumbent, Governor Corbett, is running for reelection. Party affiliations can be changed at any time.)