By Daryl Nerl
Legalizing marijuana is the right thing to do for Pennsylvania for reasons of justice and state finances, according to one Democratic candidate for governor.
And, according to John Hanger, it is also a key to the Democratic Party’s political aspirations in the Commonwealth this November.
“This issue is moving and Democrats better get on board or we’ll lose this election to Tom Corbett because people will not come out and vote,” Hanger said Wednesday night at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. “We must expand the voting population.”
Hanger, who was secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection during Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term, was one of six Democratic candidates for governor who came to Iacocca Hall to participate in a forum sponsored by the Lehigh University Democratic Club and numerous other local Democratic groups.
No other candidate raised the issue of legalizing cannabis during the portion of the forum that was for the benefit of all in the room.
For most of the evening, candidates circulated through six “issues stations” where they got to talk to voters in small groups about reproductive rights, labor, senior citizens issues, education, environment and equality.
The environmental issues station had the biggest crowds, thanks to a group of 20 or so protesters affiliated with the consumer-rights group Food & Water Watch who were there to advocate for a statewide moratorium on natural gas fracking.
Candidate Max Myers, a clergyman and small business owner from the Harrisburg area, said he would favor such a moratorium, while Hanger pledged the toughest natural gas drilling regulations in the nation.
A couple of the candidates said they had never participated in a forum quite like it. Candidate Katie McGinty, who preceded Hanger as DEP secretary, said it was her first experience with “speed-dating.”
The other candidates who participated were Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, businessman and former Rendell Revenue Secretary Tom Wolf and, the Lehigh Valley favorite, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
Absent from the forum were two of the apparent frontrunners in the race for the Democratic nomination: U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Philadelphia and current Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord.
Pawlowski took credit for a turnaround in the Queen City, which he said has seen $1 billion in new investment and thousands of new jobs, nine straight years of decreasing crime and a budget surplus.
“We took a hopeless situation in Allentown and built hope,” Pawlowski said. “I want to bring some common sense back to a place that doesn’t seem to have a lot of common sense.”
McGinty took dead aim at the incumbent she called Tom “Tea Party” Corbett, saying he has been giving working families a “punch in the gut” rather than giving them the hand up they need.
“Working families need and deserve to get ahead, to be ahead, to do well for themselves and their children, to have a secure retirement, and today they can’t,” said McGinty, who worked on environmental quality issues under President Clinton and was a top environmental advisor to Al Gore.
She said that on day one of her administration she will accept the Medicaid expansion from the federal Affordable Care Act that the governor has refused and immediately roll back his cuts to education.
Aware of the event in Bethlehem, Corbett Campaign Manager Mike Barley sent out a response via email.
“The Democratic candidates continue to prove they all represent a return to the same failed tax-and-spend policies that led Pennsylvania to high unemployment and a $4.2 billion deficit,” Barley said.
None of the candidates at the forum got bigger applause than Hanger for his assertions on legalizing marijuana which, he said, include a savings of $500 million a year to Pennsylvania taxpayers.
Nineteen states currently allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes with a doctor’s prescription. Two of those states—Colorado and Washington—have also recently legalized the recreational use of cannabis.
“The issue here is … one of justice because we are arresting African-Americans at five times the rate of whites for possessing cannabis. That is just plain wrong,” Hanger said.
“And it’s one of the reasons why our jails are full with African-American youth and minority youth. It’s up to Democrats to get finally get wise on this and call for the legalization and taxation of marijuana.”