Cannabis Legalization Will Be a Big Issue for 2020 Presidential Candidates

What do the presidential candidates think of cannabis?

The 2020 Presidential Election is right around the corner and cannabis legislation is going to be a huge talking point. Image Credit: By cannabisMD on cannabisMD

Gradually and then suddenly, cannabis legalization has become a cross-aisle cause, with a recent Gallup poll finding that 66 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization at a local and federal level — meaning that public support for cannabis legalization has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Americans are now increasingly in favor of both legalized medical marijuana and legalized recreational marijuana, and this is driving an evolution on the campaign trail.

Back in 1992, it was a big issue for a candidate to even admit to smoking cannabis — after all, that was the tail end of the ‘War on Drugs’ era. Now, we have a sitting presidential administration that has made overtures toward full legalization of cannabis products, and four declared 2020 candidates signing onto the most far-reaching cannabis legislation ever introduced into the United States Congress.

How did we get here? Once again, gradually and then suddenly. The first states to legalize cannabis for medical purposes were soon emulated by others, a process that was repeated when a handful of states legalized recreational cannabis as well. The positive results of these experiments led to more favorable public attitudes toward cannabis, which then intersected with bipartisan concern over opioid addiction, misallocation of law enforcement and criminal justice resources, and a loss of tax revenue due to black market cannabis sales.

Social justice issues have also come to the forefront of the Democratic agenda — and it hasn’t gone unnoticed that in some places, cannabis arrest rates for black and Latino people are 10 times higher than that of whites, despite roughly equal rates of cannabis use.  Because of this disparity, amnesty and erasure of criminal records have also become key planks in the platforms of 2020 candidates.

“The failed War on Drugs has really been a war on people — disproportionately criminalizing poor people, people of color and people living with mental illness,” wrote presidential candidate Cory Booker upon the release of the 2019 Marijuana Justice Act, which also counts 2020 candidates Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren among its initial co-sponsors.

This is a message that has begun to resonate with all voter bases. But in an increasingly crowded field of prospective candidates, many of whom seem to be parroting slightly-altered versions of each others’ messages, it can be hard to know where a given candidate actually stands when it comes to cannabis.

To help voters make informed decisions, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) tracks the cannabis-related voting records and public statements of prominent politicians, assigning each one a grade based on their support for sensible cannabis policies.

Below, you’ll find a ranking of the most cannabis-friendly (or unfriendly) frontrunners for the 2020 presidential election — plus one dark horse candidate.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)

NORML Score: A+
Booker’s stance on legal cannabis has been emboldened by the wave of public support for cannabis reform. He began by supporting smaller pieces of pro-cannabis legislation, which later morphed into the 2017 version of the Marijuana Justice Act. As popular opinion has come around, his support for cannabis legalization has become more ambitious, culminating in the latest version of the Marijuana Justice Act, which is currently under consideration. The bill would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and withhold certain federal funding from states that disproportionately enforce related penalties against poor people and people of color.

The legislation would also erase federal records for cannabis use and possession, and create a fund to invest in the communities hardest hit by the War on Drugs.

Upon the bill’s introduction, Booker said, “It’s not enough to simply decriminalize marijuana. We must also repair the damage caused by reinvesting in those communities that have been most harmed by the War on Drugs. And we must expunge the records of those who have served their time. The end we seek is not just legalization, it’s justice.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

NORML Score: A+
Sander’s support for legalization has been steady through the years, even if he maligned cannabis as a “gateway drug” in 2015 before coming the closest of any major party candidate to endorsing legalization in the 2016 presidential campaign.

At the time, Sanders said, “In my view, the time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana. States should have the right to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws now govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco.”

NORML rated his support a B at the time — which has since been upgraded to an A+, in recognition of the way he expanded the limits of support possible for a presidential candidate.

His support of legalization goes back to 2001, and has continued through signing onto the Marijuana Justice Act and the SAFE Banking Act, which guides banking compliance for legal cannabis businesses. In Vermont, his campaigning has helped lead to medical cannabis being made legal in 2004, with full legalization following in 2018.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)

NORML Score: A
Another co-sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act, Harris’s stance has evolved since 2010, when she opposed California’s first try at full cannabis legalization. Now, according to her recently published memoir, she supports the type of retroactive legalization mandated by Booker’s act.

“Legalizing marijuana is the smart thing to do and the right thing to do in order to advance justice and equality for every American,” she said upon the bill’s introduction.

Last year, Harris joined Booker on a Senate committee overseeing the Department of Justice (DOJ) — which at that point was under the control of the anti-reform U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The work they did in opposing Sessions’ agenda prevented any permanent damage to reform momentum.

Harris also co-wrote a letter with former Republican senator Orrin Hatch urging the DOJ to stop blocking medical marijuana research.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

NORML Score: A
In addition to co-sponsoring the Marijuana Justice Act, Warren also introduced the STATES Act with Booker — which attempts to take the sub-legal protections on state cannabis law from the Cole Memorandum and make them into real federal law. In doing so she was protecting the emerging cannabis business in her home state, Massachusetts, which fully legalized cannabis last year.

Since her election to the Senate in 2012, she has been a champion of medical cannabis, first on a local level and later on a national level. As the opioid crisis deepened, Warren has been vocal in her support of medical cannabis as a tool for preventing opioid addiction.

However, her support for full legalization wavered a bit as her state put the issue to the ballot in 2016. Though she didn’t endorse the initiative, she did vote in favor of it — and later, falsely claimed that she’d campaigned for the bill before the vote.

Now that her state has approved of legalization, Warren seems up to defending the will of her constituency — which is why NORML changed her grade from a B to an A.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

NORML Score: B+
While Gillibrand didn’t take a strong stance on cannabis during her stint in the House of Representatives from 2007-2009, since moving to the Senate she has developed a reputation as a cannabis-friendly lawmaker. She was an original sponsor of the 2017 Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act 2017, which protects medical cannabis producers and users from facing charges under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and she also joined Booker, Harris, and Warren as a co-sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act.

Much of Gillibrand’s support for cannabis has been driven by concerns about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry — as she tweeted, “Big pharma keeps pushing back against legalizing medical marijuana because, in many cases, they want to continue to sell addictive drugs and dominate the market for drugs that address chronic pain. That’s wrong.” She has also made social justice an integral part of her cannabis policy objectives, saying in an official press release, “Legalizing marijuana is a social justice issue and a moral issue that Congress needs to address.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO)

NORML Score: B
Colorado’s governor scores pretty high despite his previous opposition to cannabis legalization  — which his state passed anyway in 2012.

He’s since come around to the idea though, touting the benefits of legalization by saying, “I think it’s looking like this is going to be — for all of the flaws and challenges we have — a better system than what we had.”

And he has stood up to national pressure against his state’s decision, refusing to be swayed by hazy statistics citing an increase in accident victims testing positive for THC — the psychoactive part of cannabis which can impair driving. The claim was that legalized cannabis has led to more deaths on the roadway, which has not been proven.

Hickenlooper disputed those findings on “Meet the Press,” and invoked the right to self-determination. “Our voters passed [legalization] 55-45,” he said. “It’s in our constitution. And I took a solemn oath to support our constitution.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)

NORML Score: B
While Klobuchar doesn’t have a particularly long track record of supporting cannabis reform, she seems to have made up for lost time in recent years. She’s a co-sponsor of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would end the total federal ban on cannabis, as well as the Marijuana Effective Drug Studies (MEDS) Act, which would loosen restrictions on cannabis research.

Lately, Klobuchar has gotten even bolder in her support for legalization. In a recent official campaign statement, she said, “I support the legalization of marijuana and believe that states should have the right to determine the best approach to marijuana within their borders”

President Donald Trump (R)

NORML Score: Unranked
Trump’s seemingly random oscillations on cannabis policy may have broken NORML’s ranking algorithms. He’s been hailed as “Marijuana’s Great Savior” by Forbes, yet he appointed an attorney general (Jeff Sessions) who made it a personal — and unsuccessful — crusade to repeal every meaningful cannabis reform law of the past 20 years.

It’s exceedingly difficult to determine what the current president actually thinks about cannabis — when campaigning in 2016, he claimed to be in favor of leaving cannabis policy to the states (and even said he was personally in favor of medical cannabis), but he recently signed a bill that would allow the DOJ to enforce federal law against states that have legalized medical cannabis.

On the other hand, Trump also said he’d likely end up supporting the STATES Act if it made it through the Senate.

But casting Trump as a cannabis-friendly candidate ignores the lack of legalization movement in Trump’s first year, and his vice president Mike Pence’s previous support of every anti-drug measure that came before him. There’s also a troubling report of a secret “Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee” set up by the administration to collect “data demonstrating the most significant negative trends” to reckon with.

Howard Schultz (former Starbucks CEO)

NORML Score: Unranked
Schultz’s candidacy has been widely mocked — as Brian Barrett wrote in WIRED, “Schultz has no chance of becoming President of the United States, or even coming particularly close.” Part of the problem is that he seems unwilling to take a strong position on anything but higher taxes (hint: he’s against them), and cannabis is no exception.

Despite hailing from Washington state, which has legalized both medical and recreational cannabis, Schultz seems reluctant to talk about the issue. When asked about his stance on cannabis legalization, Schultz has refused to comment. Even in friendly environments, such as his fawning interview with the Huffington Post, he’s avoided talking about cannabis with the nimbleness of a barista during the morning rush.

With so little transparency, it’s hard to tell what the cannabis policies of a potential Schultz administration might look like. However, as Barrett said, it’s unlikely to matter much.

Ed Weinberg
Ed Weinberg
Ed Weinberg is an American journalist who’s written stories on everything from cannabis to textiles, architecture, urban exploration, and culture in Vietnam, where he spent seven years. Previous to freelance writing, he held senior editorial positions at Word Vietnam and the Vietnam Investment Review.

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