In his quest for Pennsylvania's highest office, John Hanger has advocated the eventual legalization of marijuana, a position that Wednesday won him the endorsement of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Mr. Hanger, one of eight candidates in the crowded field for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, has proposed allowing doctors to prescribe medical use of marijuana, decriminalizing charges against those found in possession of small amounts of the drug, and, if that relaxation of pot prohibitions works, its full legalization in 2017.
"This is becoming a real political and policy action issue and public opinion is moving," said Mr. Hanger, a former state Department of Environmental Protection secretary and Public Utility Commission member. "It's the right thing to do, and it's smart politics."
He said withholding cannabis from patients whose doctors prescribe it is "cruel," adding that its use has been proven beneficial in cases of severe epilepsy, cancer and for veterans experiencing post-traumatic distress disorder.
NORML announced its support for Mr. Hanger's pot proposal at news conferences with the candidate in Philadelphia and Harrisburg Wednesday, and they are expected to be in Pittsburgh today.
Speaking at the Philadelphia news conference, Erik Altieri, a spokesman for NORML, said Mr. Hanger's three-stage plan for marijuana law reform is "a smarter approach" and will save millions of dollars in enforcement costs, provide prescribed treatment to sick patients and generate new taxes for the state.
It's the first time NORML has endorsed a candidate for governor here and may be another signal that marijuana law reform is moving from a fringe issue in Pennsylvania, a state that historically hasn't inhaled, at least politically.
Gov. Tom Corbett has said he'll veto any pro-pot legislation passed by the Legislature, including medical marijuana, and none of the other Democratic candidates for governor has proposed marijuana law changes. But push for marijuana law relaxation has been getting louder, in the Keystone State and across the nation.
Medical marijuana already is legal in 20 states and, according to a May poll by Franklin & Marshall College, 4 in 5 Pennsylvanians support allowing adults to legally use it for medical purposes. And more than half of those polled "strongly favor" its medical use, compared to 13 percent who "strongly oppose" it.
Sentiment for legalizing pot is also on the rise in the state, according to the poll, rising from 22 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in May. Opposition has fallen from 72 percent to 54 percent.
"Lawmakers in Pennsylvania are reluctant to move too quickly on controversial social issues and we do have a very conservative electorate in some areas," said pollster Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall.
"But people seem to also understand that for some patients, regular medications don't cut it. And there is a growing sense that people shouldn't be incarcerated for having in their possession small amounts [of marijuana]."
In September, state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, introduced Senate Bill 770 calling for the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana. The NAACP says it supports the bill, and so does the police organization, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Pot legalization legislation also has been proposed in Ohio, New York and Minnesota.
New state laws in Washington and Colorado allow its recreational use, and the U.S. Justice Department has indicated it will pull back federal enforcement of marijuana laws and not interfere with those state laws.
"I don't think this will be a cutting-edge issue in the state anytime soon," Mr. Madonna said. "But, it's too hard to determine if it will make a difference in a close campaign."
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.