The fate of cannabis legalization in the United States may well be decided by the results of next year’s presidential elections. Nearly two dozen candidates are vying to challenge President Donald Trump, and keeping track of their views and track records on ending pot prohibition can be tricky. But as 61% of Americans now support federal legalization, owning the issue could provide hopefuls with a strong advantage.
Ahead of this week’s first Democratic debates, we take stock of where the 2020 candidates stand on legal weed.
Among Democratic Nominees, Agreement in Degrees
There is an emerging consensus among the Democratic field that cannabis prohibition has gone on too long, and hurt too many people for the status quo to remain in place. A key disagreement is whether federal legalization is the answer, or if the decision should be left to the states. Most of the candidates favor federal legalization including [deep breath] Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke, Julián Castro, Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell, Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang, and Marianne Williamson. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar thinks the issue should be settled in the states, despite the complications a federal ban creates for those legal markets. Though generally in favor of reform, Mayors Pete Buttigieg and Bill deBlasio haven’t specified how they’d approach it in detail. Montana Governor Steve Bullock, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, and former Maryland Representative John Delaney haven’t made their preferred pot policies clear.
From there, the candidates differ in how vocal they’ve been about legalization and what steps they’ve personally taken to get it done. Senator Sanders introduced the first (unsuccessful) Senate bill to end federal prohibition in 2015, typically ahead of the crowd. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker continues pushing for the Marijuana Justice Act he’s introduced in the Senate, which would legalize weed nationally and expunge the records of those previously arrested for non-violent cannabis offenses. The bill was co-sponsored by 2020 rivals Sanders, Harris, Gillibrand and Warren, and its House of Representatives companion bill sponsored by Reps Gabbard and Ryan. Senator Warren was the primary sponsor of the STATES Act, which would protect weed-legal states from federal pushback, earning the co-sponsorship from Senators Booker, Bennet, and Klobuchar, as well as Reps Ryan and Gabbard on the bill’s House equivalent. California Rep. Eric Swalwell has been a consistent leader on legalization as well, sponsoring several bills on cannabis related topics, and lobbying President Obama directly during his second term.
For voters who value direct experience, the field notably includes a couple of Governors who’ve presided over legalization in their own states and know the complicated regulatory issues involved with rolling them out. Former Washington state Governor Jay Inslee broke ground in 2012, signing the first legal recreational cannabis law in the United States. Inslee campaigned against legalization while running for office, but became a staunch defender of the law against federal interference once it was in place. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper oversaw his state’s successful transition to legal adult-use weed as well, also reluctantly. An avowed skeptic of 2014’s Amendment 64 before its passage, he went on to successfully build consensus that turned Colorado into a major cannabis industry success story. Inslee is campaigning on ending prohibition nationally, while Hickenlooper favors the more cautious, state-by-state approach.
The Frontrunner Lags Behind
Vice President Joe Biden leads in most Democratic primary polls despite being more conservative than his rivals on many issues, and his perception among younger liberals isn’t helped by decades of old public statements and positions that track even further to the right. He was staunchly “tough on crime” and clearly anti-weed during most of his Senate tenure, and became a key legislative figure behind the quixotic “War on Drugs” of the 80s and 90s. As late as 2007, he expressed doubt that cannabis was a reasonable solution for medical patients dealing with chronic pain. In 2014, he told Time magazine that he still didn’t support legalization, but found busting casual smokers to be a waste of time and resources. His latest evolution on the issue emphasizes decriminalization and expunging criminal records for minor offenses, but still falls short of federal legalization.
Erik Altieri, the director of cannabis legalization advocacy group NORML, said Biden has an “abysmal record when it comes to marijuana law reform, ending our failed war on drugs, and addressing mass incarceration.” On cannabis, and other hot topics, activists are having a hard time giving Biden the benefit of the doubt in the context of an extended career. When a 2010 clip of Biden repeating the loaded and shaky claim that marijuana was a “gateway drug” went viral on social media this spring, it was easy for doubters to believe he’d said it more recently.
An Elephant in the Room
Of course, the possibility remains that none of these people will be in the White House come 2021. As you may have heard, President Donald Trump also happens to be running. Legal weed is one subject the president has surprisingly not weighed in on much in his first couple years in office, not even a late-night tweet or two. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump suggested cannabis legislation might be better left to the states to sort out. Just last week, though, he told reporters that he’d “probably end up supporting” the STATES Act, which happens to be co-sponsored by Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado. (Hard to say if framing it as the work of Trump’s hated foe Senator Warren would have compelled a different response.)
There’s been a striking change in tone from his administration’s early days. Ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions caused alarm among activists with his long-standing, kneejerk antipathy to marijuana. So pronounced was his antagonism toward legalization that select cannabis stocks shot up as much as 30 percent upon his resignation from office. His already embattled replacement, Attorney General William Barr, has stated a personal preference for an enforced and unified federal ban on pot as well. But he seems more in touch with our current genie-out-of-the-bottle moment. Currently Barr’s deferring to the states rights status quo, while waiting for Congress to settle the cannabis contradiction once and for all.
While it’s odd that Trump's position on cannabis isn’t drastically different from the man leading the Democratic polls, most any other candidate would become the most pro-pot president in American history. It’ll be fascinating to see what might change as numbers shift, debates shake up the race, and the first state primaries draw near.
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