When Katie McGinty strode into the Glen Brook Country Club in East Stroudsburg last September, a man with a video camera followed right behind her. McGinty, a former state environmental secretary who’s running for the Democratic nomination for governor, was there to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic Women’s Eleanor Roosevelt Brunch. She spoke to the mostly female audience about environmental issues and women’s reproductive health, then opened the floor to questions; after taking several concerning fracking and school funding, she called on the man with the camera.
Aaron DiDonato, an independent journalist from East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, was filming the event for his online political news program, CounterpointPA, a Keith Olbermann-style liberal talk show deconstructing Pennsylvania politics. He asked McGinty where she fell on the marijuana issue.
“I am not for the legalization of marijuana,” she said. “On the other hand, we need to look at our sentencing guidelines and take a much more rational approach to who and what we’re clogging our prisons with. The human toll of that and the economic toll of that, to me, are unsustainable and unacceptable.”
And medical marijuana? he asked. “No,” she said. “Not at the present time. I think I would be open to the continued development of science. And if there was some science that said here are some chronic—chronic ailments, chronic pain, for which there is no other alternative medicine, then of course I would be open to that.”
He cut her off: “If I told you that the Pennsylvania State Nur-ses Union just endorsed it, would that change your mind?”
She shrugged. “I’d be happy to listen.”
At the time, marijuana reform wasn’t much of an issue in the governor’s race. That disappointed the liberal DiDonato: “Marijuana legalization is a very useful metric telling how progressive any given candidate is,” he says. McGinty’s stance was no different from Republican Governor Tom Corbett’s. Or, for all anyone knew, the other Democratic candidates’.
Well, except for one: John Hanger didn’t just support marijuana reform, he was going all out, making full legalization of the drug a centerpiece of his campaign. Back in September, though, his efforts had yet to make any sort of blip in statewide polling.
That was then. In the months following, McGinty apparently kept her ear to the ground. Because by the time January rolled around, all the candidates were asked to weigh in on marijuana reform during a debate at Carnegie Mellon University—and McGinty’s answer had shifted somewhat.
“Yes on decriminalization, and yes on availability for medical necessity,” she answered, and put down the mic.
What happened in the months between McGinty’s two responses—and what continues to happen throughout Pennsylvania—is a reflection of the speed with which the American debate on this topic has evolved: This campaign season, marijuana has become an issue that’s unpopular not to attach your name to.
Every one of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates who remain in the race as we approach the May 20 primary—candidates who had nothing to say about marijuana six months ago—have now gone on the record to endorse some kind of change in Pennsylvania’s laws on marijuana. Whichever Democrat is on the ballot in November—and as of the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, every one of them is polling higher than the unpopular Gov. Corbett—we know they’ll be running on a platform that, among other things, includes support for at least medical marijuana and, in all likelihood, the decriminalization of small amounts of the plant.
Asked how McGinty would implement a medicinal marijuana policy in the state, her campaign manager, Mike Mikus, implies that she’d likely do it in a very conservative way, making sure people couldn’t get pot after claiming they’d stubbed their toe or fallen off their skateboard. She’d “engage the medical community,” he says, and look to New York’s state initiatives for counsel. “If medical experts determine that marijuana is a medically necessary treatment for specific diseases or conditions,” he says, “Katie would support making it available to patients with those specific afflictions.”
Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, the one-time Democratic frontrunner in the primary race, told Philadelphia Weekly in February she supported both the decriminalization of marijuana possession and, potentially, the legalization of medical use. “I would be supportive of medical marijuana [that is] well-regulated by the state or federal government, should we get to that point,” she said. “And secondly, I do believe marijuana is over-criminalized. What we should do is decriminalize possession.”
That was news to lots of folks following the issue, since Schwartz had previously received a negative-10 rating from the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws based on her previous “hard on drugs” stance.
For both McGinty and Schwartz—as well as candidates Tom Wolf and Rob McCord, who hold similar stances, and Jack Wagner, who supports medicinal use—evolution on the issue was a no-brainer. Quinnipiac polling shows that 85 percent of Pennsylvanians support medicinal use of the plant, and 48 percent of the state supports full-on Colorado-style legalization. That’s the most support pot has ever seen in the commonwealth.
“The polls have been surprising on one level,” says John Micek, the opinion page editor at the Harrisburg Patriot-News. “Pennsylvania tends to be culturally conservative—at least among its older residents. But as is the case with marriage equality, the public has been moving toward the center on this issue and opposition has diluted and moved toward support. I think that’s indicative of the broader national shift on these issues. And I also think it’s a sign that Pennsylvania’s younger residents are now making their voices heard.”
Micek, who’s been covering Pennsylvania politics for the past 13 years, notes this is one of those cases where public policy is simply catching up to public sentiment.
One specific factor is clear, though: We can thank John Hanger for kicking the debate into catch-up mode.