In PA’s Weed Wars, John Hanger Wins Over Daylin Leach

Five reasons Hanger's tiered plan for marijuana legalization is our state's best hope for legal pot.

For years, the marijuana legalization issue has been maligned as a dreaded “fringe voter” topic, with supporters catching the “Legalize it, maaaaan” stoner trope over policy that, more often than not, flames out in one legislative body or another — especially in puritanical Pennsylvania.

But, with two legal marijuana states under the nation’s belt, and cannabis fast becoming a household topic, pot is squarely in the mainstream. And, of course, it’s taken a self-described “policy wonk” to start Pennsylvania on its way to where the rest of the nation has been heading for years.

That policy wonk is John Hanger, one of several democratic challengers to Gov. Tom Corbett’s spot in next year’s gubernatorial race. A former Commissioner of the state’s Public Utility Commission and Secretary of PA’s Department of Environmental Protection, Hanger is no starry-eyed stoner looking for a paranoia-free puff sometime in the near future — in fact, he’s quite the opposite. His proposed plan doesn’t call for the full legalization of marijuana until 2017.

Sure, Hanger isn’t the first PA politician to bring pot to our legislature —the ever-popular Sen. Daylin Leach has, for several years now, introduced failed full-legalization and medical-legalization measures into the state government. However, Hanger’s campaign on a pot promise does make him the first gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania history to propose a reform of the state’s arcane marijuana laws.

And, while Hanger’s embracing of the pot problem has thrust marijuana law reform into the spotlight for state voters on some level, the hope here is that we’ll ultimately serve as a model for states even further behind than us. Unfortunately, while Leach’s plans for legalization are admirable, they don’t seem particularly possible or politically likely compared to Hanger’s tiered plan. In fact, there are some reasons why Hanger’s approach might even be more preferable:

Much More Moderate

Leach’s Senate Bill 528 calls for full legalization within 30 days of the law’s passage, which, at best, could be considered politically hasty by trepidatious PA lawmakers. Hanger’s plan, on the flip side, wants legalization by 2017, which would occur following several years of medical and decriminalized use — and only on the condition that those two stages turn out favorably. Politically, that is much less extreme and could appear more attractive to moderates in the legislature. This could also be true for PA voters, with about 54 percent siding against full legalization in a recent poll.

Medical Marijuana First

Hanger’s plan is to immediately introduce a medical marijuana system in PA, which simultaneously gets medicine into the hands of the people who need it most and allows PA to test the legal marijuana waters. This is a two-fold victory for the pot camp, in that the most affected by our bad drug laws (MMJ patients) can recover more easily and our lawmakers get to observe a functioning drug distribution market starting as soon as possible. In terms of voter support, this too seems more likely than Leach’s legalization efforts: A recent poll shows more than 80 percent of PA voters support medical marijuana legalization.

Sweet, Sweet Decriminalization

Jumping directly into a full legalization market, as required under Leach’s 528, could create a monopoly-type situation in the newly budding marijuana industry, with several larger companies dominating the sudden new market out of the gate. Moreover, with the state spending upward of $325 million annual on drug arrests, a huge chunk of resources would be freed up to police serious crime or implement drug education that actually works. On that note, decriminalization actually is widely considered to either have to effect on or reduce drug usage rates overall, which could assuage worries that marijuana use will skyrocket under full legalization.

Pot Ain’t Alcohol

One of the big marks against Leach’s legalization bill is that it expressly treats marijuana the same as alcohol, down to the controlling body for distributing the drug. The push to “regulate marijuana like alcohol,” especially for PA, not exactly the best course of action given that the two drugs are inherently different. And, besides, it’s not as if Pennsylvania handles alcohol regulation all that well: It’s easier for kids to get alcohol and harder for adults to get the alcohol they want here than almost anywhere else in the country. That Hanger’s bill doesn’t yet have a concrete distributor defined gives lawmakers time to observe other states’ handling of the issue and develop a more effective solution. Marijuana, after all, should be regulated like marijuana.

Hanger’s Not Corbett

Even if Leach’s bill passes while Corbett is still Governor, it likely won’t make it off the Big Guy’s desk. Corbett, in fact, has threatened to veto any legislation slackening the state’s marijuana laws, and does not view medical marijuana as a valid healthcare option under any circumstances. Even if 528 passes and Corbett allows it, what’s most likely is that the Gov will turn it into a situation similar to Chris Christie’s treatment of medical marijuana in New Jersey (not well). With Hanger campaigning behind the marijuana measure, having a pot-friendly governor in office could go a long way on that front. And, what’s more, Leach would still be free to pitch his pro-pot laws, only this time to a more sensible boss.