Many of the 20 Democrats participating over two days in the CNN Democratic Presidential Debates in Detroit favor cannabis legalization.
Where the candidates differ the most is in past policies that may contradict their positions today — and in how legalization would look under their administration.
Former Vice President Joe Biden does not support full legalization of cannabis, but rather decriminalization. His campaign proposes reducing incarceration rates for those convicted of cannabis and other drug possessions, guiding those individuals towards treatment and reinvesting in affected communities.
Biden has been criticized for writing the 1994 crime bill dovetailed with a significant increase in incarceration rates across the country, including for marijuana possession. Critics say this bill disproportionately affected communities of color.
An outspoken proponent of the war on drugs, as well as the former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joe Biden hasn’t become much more amenable to cannabis in recent years; he is the only 2020 Democratic candidate who remains explicitly opposed to federal legalization. He supports rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug, which would facilitate scientific research. In May, Leafly characterized Biden’s stand with this headline: Biden Pledges Tepid Support for Cannabis Half-Measure.
“There’s a difference between sending someone to jail for a few ounces and legalizing it…The punishment should fit the crime. But I think legalization is a mistake. I still believe [marijuana] is a gateway drug.” (2010)
Then in mid-July, as Biden looked around and realized he was the only candidate (besides Trump) still standing in the way of legalization, he changed his tune. Kind of. The former vice president released a 10-page justice reform proposal that included: decriminalization of cannabis, $20 billion in prevention funds for communities, efforts to reduce racial profiling by police, more job training in prisons, ending private prisons, and other ideas. “I believe my criminal justice reform package is as strong or stronger than anyone else,” Biden said.
At the NAACP National Convention last week, Sen. Kamala Harris of California said she wants to legalize and decriminalize cannabis. She criticized the industry for profiting while those who sold it on the street remain incarcerated.
As California attorney general, Harris opposed legalization, calling it “flawed public policy.”
Harris has made the most dramatic shift in her cannabis views of any of the 2020 candidates. A few years ago she spoke brazenly about convicting drug dealers in California and openly scoffed at questions of legalization. She has since become a sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act (although it took her a while). Among the 2020 candidates, she has also become the most open about her own cannabis use.
“The war on drugs was a failure…It criminalized what is a public health matter. It was a war on poor communities more than anything.” (2017)
Harris has continued to evolve on the issue. On July 22, she introduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, aka the MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. The MORE proposal would also require federal courts to expunge prior marijuana-related convictions, allow prior offenders to request expungement of their criminal records and, if needed, request re-sentencing hearings.
It would also halt the denial of federal public benefits based on marijuana possession or previous pot-related convictions, while making sure those offenses “will have no adverse impact under the immigration laws.” The Act would also authorize a 5% federal sales tax on cannabis products to fund an Opportunity Trust Fund for socially and economically disadvantaged communities.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is a longtime advocate for cannabis legalization. Although she did not not endorse her state’s legalization ballot measure in 2016, Warren was the lead sponsor of Strengthening The Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would exempt state-legal cannabis activity from federal regulations.
Warren has co-sponsored and signed bills that would expunge criminal records for possession and stimulate medical research on the plant.
Although Warren did not support her state’s adult-use cannabis bill in 2016, she has since evolved significantly on the issue; she has sponsored and endorsed a wide range of cannabis reform bills, including the STATES Act, the leading bill to end federal prohibition.
“No one should go to jail for a joint. But more Americans are arrested for marijuana possession than all violent crimes combined.” (2018)
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas supports cannabis legalization, specifically in order to reduce incarceration rates.
In a statement to Benzinga, O’Rourke’s campaign said he supports legalization and expunging criminal records for those who have been convicted of cannabis possession.
“Beto has long supported ending the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunging the records of those arrested solely for possession,” a campaign spokesperson said. “He sponsored legislation while in Congress to end the federal prohibition on marijuana.”
O’Rourke has been advocating for drug reform for a decade, much longer than many of the other 2020 contenders. He is an outspoken advocate of federal legalization.
“We stand a better chance of keeping kids from using marijuana if it is sold by regulated businesses instead of by teenagers on street corners and middle school playgrounds,” (2014)
Calling for an end to “the destructive war on drugs,” Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been one of the public faces of cannabis reform.
In 1995, Sanders co-sponsored a bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana. He has supported numerous bills to reform cannabis regulation ever since.
Sanders is one of the most pro-cannabis candidates on this list, and he didn’t just discover the issue last month. He first pushed for cannabis legalization 20 years ago, and, during the 2016 election, became the first major party Presidential candidate to support cannabis legalization. He’s currently one of the leading sponsors of the Marijuana Justice Act in Congress.
“Right now, marijuana is listed by the federal government as a Schedule I drug—meaning that it is considered to be as dangerous as heroin. That is absurd.” (2015)
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg supports legalization. While he hasn’t acted on any cannabis legislation as mayor, Buttigieg released a criminal justice reform plan known as “The Douglass Plan” that includes legalization and conviction expungement.
Buttigieg campaign press secretary Chris Meagher referred Benzinga to Buttigeig’s statements at a presidential candidate forum in Des Moines, Iowa earlier this month.
“I don’t recommend smoking anything, but not only are there important medical uses, but we’ve just hit the point as a country where there are a lot of offenses where the way we responded to it is actually doing more harm to society and costing us more than the offense itself did,” Buttigieg said at the forum.
Although he’s never tackled cannabis during his time as mayor of South Bend, Buttigieg has become a vocal proponent of ending cannabis prohibition, and often frames the issue in the context of racial disparities.
“What are we going to do…if we decide that it actually doesn’t make sense to [incarcerate] for unbelievably long amounts of time for non-violent drug offenses, what are we going to do for the people we already did that to?” (2019)
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has not had opportunity to act much on cannabis legislation. Castro’s department said owners of federally assisted housing complexes must deny entry to all marijuana users.
Since then, Castro has come out in support of legalization and record expungement for marijuana convictions.
As recently as 2014, Castro was skeptical of cannabis reform; in the past couple of years, however, he has become critical of the Trump Administration’s interference with state laws and is seemingly in favor of federal legalization.
“[Rescinding the Cole memo] is a mistake. Colorado and other states have shown we can sensibly legalize marijuana with reasonable controls.” (2017)
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey supports legalization and record expungement.
He is the chief sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act, which would end federal prohibition through the drug’s removal from the Controlled Substances Act. The act would also penalize states for discriminatory marijuana law enforcement and support a grant program to invest in communities targeted by the war on drugs.
A longtime critic of the war on drugs and advocate of cannabis reform, Booker raised the bar on cannabis legislation this year when he became the chief sponsor of the progressive and far-reaching Marijuana Justice Act. Until recently, Booker stood virtually alone in his support for both legalization and social equity programs to help repair the damage done by the war on drugs.
“I believe too many of my young people are being unfairly punished and chewed up by the criminal justice system over small amounts of marijuana. Their lives are being severely and adversely affected by the sheer number of arrests and incarcerations we are making. (2013)
Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang has called for legalization and pardoning those who have been incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.
The Yang campaign did not respond to multiple requests for more specific comments on what his legalization plan looks like.
Yang has been explicit about his pro-legalization views since jumping into the campaign; recently, however, he had to walk back a promise to pardon all non-violent drug offenders on 4/20 to only include individuals convicted of violating federal marijuana laws.
“Our criminalization of marijuana is stupid and racist, particularly now that it’s legal in some states.” (2018)
Author Marianne Williamson wants cannabis legalized at the federal level, and supports record expungement and broader economic opportunities for people to participate in the industry.
The tax revenue earned from cannabis should be put toward funding education, health care, reducing student debt and raising the minimum wage to $15, in Williamson’s view.
Williamson has not made cannabis a central element of her campaign, but has iterated her support of legalization and the need of a crackdown on the opioid epidemic.
“If marijuana were legal, it would be more of a controlled substance…not less.” (2013)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said she supported legalization and co-sponsored the STATES Act with Warren. She has also supported policy to expand research on marijuana and remove CBD from the definition of marijuana under federal law.
Klobuchar addresses cannabis far less than most of the other candidates on the campaign trail. Although she signed on to the STATES Act, she has not supported the Marijuana Justice Act. Shortly before announcing her bid for presidency, she deleted a statement of support for the state’s medical marijuana program from her website. But then in February, a little more than a week after entering the presidential race, she said she now supports adult-use legalization, a full 180-degree pivot from her previous policy.
“I support the legalization of marijuana and believe that states should have the right to determine the best approach to marijuana within their borders.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has supported access to medical cannabis, but it is unclear what his stance is on recreational use. The Bullock campaign did not respond to Benzinga’s request for clarification.
He has acted in favor of Montana medical marijuana patients on multiple occasions, according to Civilized.
Although Bullock has been an outspoken advocate of medical marijuana in Montana and a vocal opponent of rescinding the Cole Memo, he has kept mum on federal legalization; his public comments suggest that he is not in favor of recreational cannabis.
“I don’t want unlimited grow operations and things like that. I don’t think anybody does…I don’t think we want the chronic pain of ages 19 to 29 be the largest group [of medical cannabis patients].” (2012)
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has consistently supported marijuana legislation on the House floor, including bills to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, protect banks that service cannabis businesses and fair taxes for cannabis businesses.
In the past couple of years Gabbard has sponsored and co-sponsored many cannabis reform bills; a military veteran, she has advocated for veterans’ legal access to cannabis. In March 2019, she and Alaska Rep. Don Young introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, which would remove cannabis from the federal controlled substances list and allow states to regulate the substance with full authority.
“[The criminal justice system] puts people in prison for smoking marijuana while allowing corporations like Purdue Pharma, who are responsible for the opioid-related deaths of thousands of people, to walk away scot-free with their coffers full.” (2019)
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio has supported marijuana and hemp-related amendments since the start of his tenure in 2003. He co-sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act and regulating cannabis like alcohol, and backed removing hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.
Ryan has a long history of voting for cannabis reform bills, dating back to 2003. His recent co-sponsorship of the Marijuana Justice Act is his boldest move yet. In July 2018, when others were still waffling on the issue, Ryan wrote a CNN op-ed calling for full national legalization.
“We have ignored the social and economic toll of our marijuana laws for too long. It is morally wrong, economically nonsensical, and an unnecessary strain on our already strained law enforcement officials.” (2018)
While former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland hasn’t been vocal about full cannabis legalization, he signed onto legislation removing CBD from the Controlled Substances Act, protecting medical marijuana patients and an amendment that would allow doctors who work for the Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical cannabis for treatment.
Although he hasn’t sponsored any cannabis legislation himself, Representative Delaney earned a “B” rating from NORML for his consistent voting record in favor of cannabis reform.
“[The war on drugs] has contributed to a criminal justice system where people of color are disproportionately harmed.” (2018)
Bill de Blasio
Initially opposed to legalization, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has made an attempt at curbing marijuana-related arrests. He instructed the New York City Police Department to issue summons instead of arrests when people possess 25 grams or less.
Yet de Blasio has been criticized for having higher marijuana-related arrest rates, especially along racial lines, during his administration than his predecessors Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani.
DeBlasio has advocated for reducing cannabis-related arrests since he became mayor of New York City in 2014; he didn’t come out in favor of adult-use legalization until this past December, however, just two days after Governor Cuomo.
“I have been convinced that we can establish a regulatory framework that keeps our streets safe, rights the wrongs of the past, and gives economic opportunity to communities hit hardest by the war on drugs.” (2018)
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper opposed the ballot measure that legalized cannabis in Colorado. He supports the removal of cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act rather than national legalization.
Hickenlooper told The Colorado Sun in March he doesn’t think the federal government should “come in and tell every state that it should be legal.”
Even though Hickenlooper used to consider cannabis a “gateway drug” and publicly opposed Colorado’s legalization efforts, he has since come around to the issue and signed many cannabis reform bills while in office. Still, no legalization advocate in Colorado would consider Hickenlooper an ally. He allowed the will of the voters to take effect in 2012, but he didn’t like legalization then and he’s still not a big fan of it now.
“…federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or goldfish too quickly.” (2012)
Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado opposed the state’s ballot measure for legalization in 2012.
He has co-sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act and STATES Act and was a chief sponsor of a 2017 bill to allow industrial hemp farmers access to federally controlled water.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York started her tenure in opposition to legislative cannabis reform, including a vote against protecting state medical marijuana laws from federal interference.
She now supports the Marijuana Justice Act and co-sponsored bills to protect state medical marijuana laws from federal interference and support medicinal cannabis research.
While Gillibrand has publicly advocated for medical cannabis since at least 2014, she has recently evolved to become one of the most vocal pro-legalization candidates vying for the Democratic nomination.
“Sadly, as you will hear from my constituents, for decades, the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has not been pursued with equality.” (2018, in a letter to then-AG Sessions)
In early June, Gillibrand became one of the few candidates to roll out a full legalization plan. “Legalization is a criminal justice issue, a health care issue, and an economic issue,” she wrote. “It’s past time to make this happen at the federal level.”
In July, Gillibrand further solidified her bona fides with a performance at a campaign gathering in Ohio, where she brilliantly explained the problem with racial disparities, white privilege, and the war on drugs.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee didn’t support legalization at first, but now supports the effort.
As governor, he signed multiple bills into law to allow medical marijuana patients to purchase plants and seeds, cultivation of hemp and exempt hemp from lists of controlled substances.
Like Hickenlooper, Inslee was initially opposed to legalization in his state, but has since become an advocate of federal cannabis reform, and has championed expunging marijuana misdemeanor charges in the state. Earlier this year he announced that he would pardon 3,500 people with low-level cannabis convictions statewide. Which is more than Hickenlooper has done.
“As states continue to legalize medical and recreational marijuana, there is more that the federal government must to do to provide states with legal certainty and empower the operation of safe systems across the country.” (2016)
Trump has sent mixed messages on cannabis over the past few years. He has said that the issue should be determined by individual states, but also nominated an epically anti-cannabis attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Trump had issues with Sessions, but the AG’s bizarre obsession with cannabis was not one of them. Trump did nothing to halt Sessions’ major move on cannabis, rescinding the Cole Memo in early 2018. Recently his administration shot down a series of bills to facilitate veterans’ access to cannabis. And the White House has blocked a bill that would make it easier to study the use of medical cannabis by those same veterans. In a recent column, Leafly’s Bruce Barcott said this about the gap between Trump’s words and deeds on cannabis issues:
Still wondering what Trump thinks about legalization? Hang on, let me order a big-ass neon billboard from Obvious Signage & Sons. Here’s what it says: HE’S AGAINST IT.
“In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state. Marijuana is such a big thing.” (2015)
Update: July 8, 2019 — Rep. Eric Swalwell has dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Swalwell said he was suspending his campaign and would focus on winning reelection to Congress next year.
Swalwell, a former prosecutor, has earned an “A” rating from NORML for his longtime support of cannabis reform. Unlike many other 2020 candidates, including fellow Californian Kamala Harris, he endorsed his state’s adult-use initiative long before it passed.
“Prosecution of marijuana violations clog our already overburdened courts and cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually to enforce.” (2016)
Although he doesn’t speak often about recreational cannabis, Moulton, a military veteran, has spearheaded several bills supporting veterans’ access to medical cannabis.
“We’ve got to bring marijuana out of the shadows and actually regulate it.” (2016)
Messam, the longest of the long shots, has not publicly revealed a position on legalization. Very little is known about Messam’s stance on cannabis—or any other issue, for that matter, aside from fighting climate change and the NRA.
“As long as those states that choose to do so continue to enforce DUI laws, spread economic benefits throughout all communities, and expunge records for those arrested for selling marijuana, they would have my full support as President.” (2019)
Weld has had a bizarre relationship with cannabis. Or maybe he’s just evolving. He was President Reagan’s man in Massachusetts during the height of the war on drugs in the 1980s, but by 2016 he was the Libertarian party’s candidate for vice president, running alongside former cannabis company executive Gary Johnson, on an anti-prohibition platform. He’s now come back to the Republican fold and currently sits on the board of Acreage Holdings with former US Speaker of the House and longtime cannabis opponent John Boehner.
“I think [national legalization] is inevitable. I don’t think any politician is going to be able to stop it.” (2018)
Source: 420Intel.com & Leafly.com