The 2020 presidential election will decide the immediate future of cannabis in the United States. Here, we take a look at the frontrunners’ stances on the big question of federal legalization. Plus, stay tuned for more analysis of additional presidential hopefuls on Ember in the coming weeks and months.
Since he’s the incumbent, it should be relatively easy to define President Trump’s stance on cannabis—and yet things are rarely straightforward when it comes to the Trump administration. When he was running for office ahead of the 2016 election, Trump campaigned on a platform of states’ rights, arguing that each state should be able to have its own say on whether to legalize cannabis for medical or recreational use. “Marijuana is such a big thing,” he told a rally in Nevada in 2015. “I think medical should happen—right? Don’t we agree?” However, after Trump became president, his administration began to take a dimmer view on recreational cannabis. In January 2018, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded three memos introduced during the Obama era that set out a policy of noninterference with states where recreational cannabis is legal. Of course, Sessions was then ousted from the role in November that same year—and months earlier, Trump had told reporters that he would “probably” support the STATES Act, the bipartisan bill introduced by Cory Gardner and Elizabeth Warren that would protect individuals and businesses in states where cannabis is legal from federal prosecution for their involvement in the industry. Since making that comment last year, President Trump has been uncharacteristically taciturn on the topic of cannabis.
Historically, former Vice President Joe Biden has been the least enthusiastic of all the Democratic frontrunners when it comes to legalization. In 2010 he told Good Morning America: “I still believe it’s a gateway drug. I’ve spent a lot of my life as chairman of the Judiciary Committee dealing with this. I think it would be a mistake to legalize.” However, as the country’s attitudes have shifted, so have Biden’s. While speaking to voters in New Hampshire in May this year, Biden said: “Nobody should be in jail for smoking marijuana.” His campaign later clarified that Biden is proposing to continue to allow states to make their own decisions, but will stop short of advocating for federal legalization. Instead, he has suggested rescheduling cannabis from Schedule I (“drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration) to Schedule II (drugs with some accepted medical use, but also “a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence”). This at least acknowledges the medical benefits of cannabis, but could cause problems for medical cannabis patients as it would bring the entire industry under the auspices of the Food and Drug Administration.
In February this year, California Senator Kamala Harris was asked during an appearance on The Breakfast Club radio show whether she’d ever smoked cannabis. “I have,” she said, before laughing: “And I inhaled ... It was a long time ago, but yes ... I think that it gives a lot of people joy, and we need more joy in the world.” In more practical terms, Harris argued in her recent book The Truths We Hold that cannabis should be federally legalized and regulated, and that nonviolent cannabis convictions should be expunged. This marks a change of heart for Harris, who opposed cannabis legalization when she was running for the role of California attorney general in 2010. However, in recent years she has supported both Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act and the SAFE Banking Act, which aims to protect banks that work with cannabis companies from federal punishment.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made history ahead of the 2016 election when he became the first major presidential candidate from either the Democratic or the Republican Party to endorse the full federal legalization of cannabis. He’s no longer alone in this position, but he certainly deserves credit for leading the charge while others were still dragging their heels. In fact, Sanders’s support of pro-cannabis legislation goes back decades. In 1995 he cosponsored a House bill to legalize and regulate medical cannabis, and in more recent years he’s also supported the Marijuana Justice Act and the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act. Of his own experiences, he once told a rally in Las Vegas: “I smoked marijuana twice and all I did was cough my guts out, so it didn’t work for me, but I do understand other people have had different experiences.”
In an ideal world, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has said she’d like to federally legalize cannabis. However, she also showed her pragmatic approach to the issue when she introduced the STATES Act alongside Republican Senator Cory Gardner. While that act stops short of changing anything at a federal level, it would protect legalization at the state level and has been seen as a way of achieving bipartisan unity on what has at times been a divisive issue. Warren also has a track record of supporting legalization, having voted in favor of legalizing cannabis in Massachusetts in 2016. In April this year, she told a town hall meeting in New Hampshire: “The best evidence suggests that African Americans and whites use marijuana at about the same rates, but African Americans are more likely to be arrested [than] whites are ... If we talk about criminal justice reform, we need to start with the things we make illegal. One of the best places we could start with is the legalization of marijuana.”