From the start, Hanger—who finally dropped out of the race in March, citing Tom Wolf’s “commanding lead”—built his campaign on the assertion that marijuana reform matters. He frequently pointed to the injustice of the state’s lopsided enforcement of drug laws: African-Americans are five times more likely to be arrested for simple marijuana possession than whites.
“I think for Democrats, there’s been a realization that the criminalization of marijuana is attacking key parts of their coalition: young people,” Hanger says today. “And also because of the racial discrimination in enforcement, targeting African Americans. That can’t be tolerated by people of good will—and especially by Democratic political leaders.”
That stance led Hanger to become a hero to a small but loud constituency of pot activists statewide. During the past year, many gathered monthly at Independence Mall in Philadelphia to hold “Smokedown” pro-pot rallies meant to push the federal government on the issue and, in many cases, to demonstrate civil disobedience by toking up in public. Hanger attended in September; while there, he called “shame” on the state for its conservative position on marijuana: “As a taxpayer, I’m tired of paying $350 million in Pennsylvania to enforce these unjust laws while we’re closing libraries and schools right here in the city of Philadelphia.”
The Smokedown gatherings led to numerous arrests and a large police presence at the Mall, and at least one arrested protester was banned by court order from attending protests for a year: local comedian and activist N.A. Poe, who credits Hanger with bringing the issue to the forefront of state politics.
Poe, too, likens the rapid evolution of the weed debate to the similarly fast-spreading American support for gay marriage: “We’re seeing politicians flock to our side mostly because marijuana legalization is polling so well,” he says. “In the short time it has been legal in Colorado, we’ve seen great [tax revenue] numbers and minimal negative effects.”
Poe, Philly NORML and other advocacy organizations that have frequented the Smokedown protests aren’t the only ones working hard for pot during this campaign season. Joseph Badowski recently launched VoteMedicalPA.com, a website dedicated to spreading the message on medical cannabis. “I’m very happy about the stances that many of our candidates have on the issue,” says Badowski—who notes his motivation comes from watching family members suffer through ailments that could have been treated with cannabis—“and I am especially thankful for what John Hanger has done in raising the issue. I believe he had a big part in getting our state to where we are today. The fact that so many candidates, lawmakers and citizens are now behind the issue—it is only a matter of time before things go into effect.”
That sense of inevitability was highlighted in January, when two politically disparate state senators—Daylin Leach, a longtime marijuana supporter and liberal Democrat, and Mike Folmer, a conservative Republican—held a hearing on the medical cannabis bill they’d decided to co-sponsor. The hearing packed a small room on the ground floor of the Capitol building and brought in witnesses from all over the country. When Folmer spoke, he acknowledged that common political wisdom would suggest he not take progressive leadership on a drug issue—“but when I got to meet the parents” of sick children who could benefit from medical cannabis “and do my own research” on the topic, he said, “I realized I was wrong.”
When a rural legislator from central Pennsylvania wants to team up with a Philadelphia-area progressive and legalize medical marijuana, the writing is on the wall.
Hanger began moving up in the polls late last fall and continued throughout the winter. In an early January poll, he showed up at just 8 percent against the six other primary candidates—and yet at the same time polled the best among them against Gov. Corbett. He put up two big pro-pot billboards in heartland Pennsylvania—one in Scranton, one in Erie—calling on the voters to support him specifically for the marijuana issue. He brought it up at all the debates, and hammered his opponents for their timid steps toward legalization, pointing out that while the decriminalization policies they favored would make simple marijuana possession a ticketable-but-non-arrestable offense, that would by no means legalize it.
It’s hard to say definitively that Hanger’s loud tub-thumping had a measurable effect on the state’s willingness to discuss reform—but something sure has. Less than a year ago, in May 2013, a Franklin and Marshall College poll found just 38 percent approved of recreational marijuana, and 54 percent disapproved. That means approval has shot up by 10 points in less than a year, and disapproval has declined by six.
Hanger’s not shy about it: “I think that happened because of our campaign. We took that position and put the issue into the mix, so the top five or six [candidates] had to talk about it.”
He also takes pride in the fact that the first two steps of his four-step plan to make marijuana completely legal in Pennsylvania—regulating medical cannabis and decriminalizing possession—are now agreed upon by the Democrats. He’s confident the eventual Democratic nominee will beat Corbett in November—and that it’ll be partially because of pot. “The marijuana issue is one of very few that can change votes,” he says. “And I don’t see any Democrats yet totally understand that, but it can. I’m not just blowing smoke.” (Seriously, he said that last part.)
Not everyone credits Hanger with changing the game. Vanessa Maria, a local advocate for environmental issues and member of the Cannabis Justice Coalition, thinks Colorado and Washington’s moves on the issue made a campaign like Hanger’s inevitable. “There was a buzz about marijuana legalization long before Hanger came on to the scene,” she says, noting the tax dollars Colorado and Washington have brought in from legalization. “As Pennsylvania faces huge budget deficits, I think it has caused both citizens and legislators to ask the same question.”
In any case, a study recently highlighted in The New York Times seems to bear out marijuana’s effectiveness as an electoral issue. According to data put together by Just Say Now, a pro-marijuana group, the number of voters under 30 in Colorado and Washington increased six percent and 12 percent, respectively, between 2008 and 2012. The difference between those two elections: Pot was on the ballot, and it was able to bring out even more young voters than Candidate Obama had been able to four years earlier.
Of course, it may be that Governor Corbett is so unpopular these days that he’d lose even if there weren’t a boom in young voter turnout. But Democrats know they shouldn’t count on it.
“I think not embracing medical marijuana and decriminalization [would be] political malpractice,” Hanger says. It’s no coincidence, he suggests, that the whole bunch of candidates have now come out on this issue in unison: “Generally, politicians don’t end up doing really stupid things politically.” He’s quick to stress that he means generally; major political gaffes are fairly rare, and this isn’t one of them. Whether the Democratic candidates now favor marijuana reform “genuinely or cynically,” he says, doesn’t matter so much. What matters is that people are ready to vote for it.