Can Marijuana Make John Hanger Governor?

Democrat says Pennsylvanians are so fed up with the war on drugs that they'll join his campaign.

John Hanger might not be the first guy you’d think of to be the “pot candidate” in this year’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign: He’s a Penn Law grad who has held several reasonably high-profile state posts during his career.

Still, it’s Hanger’s aggressive pro-legalization stance that has come to define his candidacy. He both embraces that distinction — believing it might get him the numbers to win the Democratic primary — and eschews it, saying that he’s got plans and proposals to address a host of issues afflicting the state.

Talk to him, and you might find yourself suspecting Hanger could benefit from a toke or two. He can be frenetic in conversation, packing thousands of words and many ideas into a compact space, as though he were racing to beat an invisible timer. And that’s when he’s focused on the conversation — he interrupted his phone call with Philly Mag last week to do campaign business, offering buttons and bumper stickers to supporters. “We’re going to knock those elites out of office,” he promised.

Your campaign put up billboards in a couple of Pennsylvania towns urging voters to legalize and tax marijuana now. Do you think marijuana legalization can be the cornerstone to winning a statewide campaign in Pennsylvania?

Absolutely — this issue involves the lives of two million Pennsylvanians. Some folks say, “Marijuana is not a voting issue, it’s not important.” Tell that to the 500,000 Pennsylvanians who have conditions that are treated with cannabis in 20 states. Tell that to the moms I was with this morning, who have children who are suffering from Dravet Syndrome, whose lives are hanging in the balance. They want marijuana for their children and for them it is the only issue.

This is also a very important issue for all taxpayers. We are spending $300 million, approximately, chasing down and arresting people who are possessing small amounts of marijuana. If we get it out of the underground economy and start taxing it, instead of spending that $300 million we will raise $200 million dollars of new revenue. That’s a big deal for taxpayers.

And then there is the whole issue of racial justice. Marijuana arrests are half of all drug arrests, not a small part of the war on drugs, it’s half of all drug arrests. In Pennsylvania, African Americans are being arrested at five times the rate of whites, even though usage is the same.

Three hundred thousand votes will win the primary; this issue will get me at least 200,000 of them.

There have been movements at the local level, certainly here in Philadelphia, to maybe decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. The DA isn’t prosecuting small amounts, there has been some movement at City Council to further accelerate that process. Is that not enough to maybe curb the worst excesses of the war on drugs?

I have proposed a three-step reform plan. First step was medical marijuana, that should have been done years ago. Second step was decriminalization, that should be done immediately. I am glad to see any community move towards decriminalization. Decriminalization is a real misnomer, the purchase and use of marijuana would still remain a crime, but the penalties would be lowered. The third step is legalization and taxation.

The waste of money on criminalization doesn’t end with “Decriminalization,” that’s why it’s a misnomer. It’s reduced, but you are still having arrests, you are still having processing of summons and tickets, and all of the various processes associated with arresting and finding people. And of course, you still keep marijuana in the underground economy, and you don’t legalize and you don’t tax.

Keystone Politics is a liberal blog you maybe aware of. It has criticized your campaign’s emphasis on legalization for a couple of reasons. First, it suggests based on its reading of the poll numbers, that outright legalization seems unlikely at this stage, maybe only about a third of Pennsylvania supports it. Second, the blog suggests there are so many more important things to worry about right now, job growth and education cuts and abortion rights and marriage equally among them. So what’s your response to all that?

First, my number one issue is education. And I have a whole education plan at My number two issue is jobs, I am the only candidate with a real jobs plan that will create 382,000 jobs and that is on But I also want to win this race, so that I can save Pennsylvania schools and then create those 382,000 jobs.

I will tell you I’ve got more experience running state agencies than anybody else in this race — I go back to the Casey administration. I ran two state agencies. I am a national energy expert. And I’ve got unique energy expertise at a time when Pennsylvania needs energy expertise in the governor’s chair. I know how to regulate, tax and zone gas drilling and keep it out of sensitive places where it doesn’t belong. I know how to have an energy boom that improves wind, solar and energy efficiency, and I’ve done those things in my career. I am not a one-issue candidate, but I am glad that people want to talk to me because of my position on legalization and taxation.

Let’s take marijuana off the table for just a second. Outside of that, what would be the top priority your first day in office and how would you attack it?

My number one issue is education and setting up public schools. There are a number of ways I differ from my Democratic opponents. First, I proposed a college affordability plan that would allow all Pennsylvanians to go to two years of community college or one year of state public universities without writing a tuition check up front. They would sign a contract to repay their tuition from their earnings, they would pay 1 to 2 percent of their earnings over a 15-year period. I have a fund that will capitalize over $1.5 billion dollar bonds that would pay the tuition to the community college.

We have to get serious about income inequality, and one way to get serious about it is to provide education and training opportunities that improve the skills and therefore the value of people who received that education.

Last question: Given the emphasis of your campaign, you have a pretty establishmentarian background: You went to Duke University and Penn Law. You have service in the State’s Department of Environmental Protection and Public Utility Committee. How does somebody go from that straight-laced background to putting up pro-pot billboards in an area in Scranton?

It’s a question of what’s right and wrong. Look, I came out of University of Pennsylvania Law School and got my dream job as a legal service attorney. I worked with families who couldn’t pay their utility bills and were shut off and in the cold on a day like you have now. I’ve run an organization dedicated to improving Pennsylvania’s environment and economy in the non-profit sector. I have a mix of experiences in my life, including coming to America as a 12-year-old-boy from Ireland. I am an immigrant to this country.

I certainly have held important offices, I’ve managed to have major accomplishments that nobody else in this race could even begin to talk about. For example, when I was a Public Utilities Commissioner with Governor Casey, Philadelphia’s electric rates were among the 10 highest in this country. I corrected the problem by the time I left, with a 14-year rate cap on electric rates. And I’ve saved everybody in the Philadelphia region who pays electric bills thousands of dollars. For big consumers of energy, millions of dollars on their electric bill. So I am an unusual candidate and further, I am not asking any voter to vote for me without detailed proposals. I have detailed proposals on my website from beginning to end and I will continue to push issues with a mix of facts and morality.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.