Presidential Candidates and Cannabis Legalization

Kathryn Blume 5 Feb 2020

Senator Bernie Sanders made a big splash recently with the announcement of his 3-part plan for cannabis legalization. The key points of his proposal include: 

  • Legalize marijuana in the first 100 days with executive action
  • Vacate and expunge all past marijuana-related convictions
  • Ensure that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs
  • Ensure legalized marijuana does not turn into big tobacco

The campaign’s website states that “not only will Bernie take executive action to legalize marijuana by removing it from the Controlled Substance Act, he will expunge past convictions of marijuana related offenses, and ensure that victims of the War on Drugs are not passed over by the burgeoning marijuana industry.”

The senator, who earned an A from Canna Law Blog’s candidate grading system is a longtime legalization proponent who filed the Senate’s first-ever cannabis descheduling bill in 2015. 

Recently, a campaign advisor also suggested that the senator wouldn’t rule out covering medical cannabis through his Medicare for All policy.

While cannabis legalization has made significant inroads into Democratic candidate platforms across the country, the rest of the current slate of active Presidential contenders vary widely in their interest in and commitment to cannabis legalization.

Vice President Joe Biden

Canna Law Blog Grade: D

While Vice President Biden’s website has a detailed plan for Criminal Justice Reform, nowhere does it mention cannabis directly. 

Biden has expressed support for decriminalizing cannabis use and automatic expungements for possession convictions, but these are newly articulated positions, which fail to note that he’s been a prohibitionist drug warrior for decades.

Rolling Stone noted that Michael Collins, the director of national affairs at Drug Policy Action, called Biden “the architect, in all ways, of the war on drugs,” and that during his tenure in the Senate Biden “was largely responsible for creating the “drug czar” in 1982, a cabinet position that would go on to form the Office of National Drug Control Policy and increase enforcement of anti-drug laws.”

Biden even currently takes issue with medical cannabis, saying, “We have not devoted nearly enough science or time to deal with the pain management and chronic pain management that exists. There’s got to be a better answer than marijuana. There’s got to be a better answer than that. There’s got to be a better way for a humane society to figure out how to deal with that problem.”

Mayor Mike Bloomberg

No Canna Law Blog Grade

While Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign website articulates highly detailed plans for both Criminal Justice Reform and creating Economic Justice for Black America, the former New York City mayor is about as anti-cannabis as Joe Biden, and has called legalization “stupidest thing anybody has ever done.”

Bloomberg’s policy record backs up that disdain, and Cannabis Law Report notes that during his three terms as mayor, “one consistent factor under his administration was a high level of arrests for marijuana possession.”

A report from the Drug Policy Alliance shows that “from 2002 to 2012, the NYPD made about 440,000 arrests for cannabis possession alone, collectively spending about one million hours processing those cases,” and that “overall, there were more marijuana arrests under Bloomberg than under the mayorships of Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani combined.”

As public attitudes about cannabis have shifted, Bloomberg has slowly tweaked his stance to support decriminalization and states rights, but continues to oppose legalization.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Canna Law Blog Grade: B+

Mayor Buttigieg’s website articulates a commitment to both criminal justice reform and revitalizing Black America through the Douglass Plan – in the context of which, he plans to “eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses and apply these reductions retroactively, legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions.”

Recently, Buttigieg stated his desire to engage a bi-partisan congress on cannabis legalization, and if that doesn’t work, his Plan B is to fly around the country on Air Force 1 and talk directly to the constituents of recalcitrant legislators.

“I believe the time has come to legalize marijuana, and let me share some of the reasons why. The biggest reason why is that we have found that this war on drugs approach has done much more harm than the issues it was supposed to deal with. In our own city, we’ve seen now the effects of a generation of children who have experienced the incarceration of a parent—and that is a traumatic experience that makes a child that much more likely to have their own issues with the justice system.”

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard

Canna Law Blog Grade: A+

Unlike many of the other candidates, Congresswoman Gabbard lists cannabis legalization as one of her priority issues. As stated on her website:

“The failed war on drugs is an attack on our values of freedom and fairness as Americans. In recent years, many states have taken initiative by legalizing marijuana, reforming drug laws and sentencing guidelines, and winding down the ‘War on Drugs.’ Now it’s time for the federal government to do the same.”

Gabbard has also introduced, signed, and voted for cannabis related bills including:

  • H.R.1588 — Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2019 to limit the application of Federal laws to the distribution and consumption of marijuana, and for other purposes.
  • H.R.1456 — Marijuana Justice Act of 2019 to amend the Controlled Substances Act to provide for a new rule regarding the application of the Act to marijuana, and for other purposes.
  • H.R.712 — VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2019 to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a clinical trial of the effects of cannabis on certain health outcomes of adults with chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and for other purposes.

Gabbard even addressed cannabis in her campaign announcement speech, when she said:

“Our current 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.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar

Canna Law Blog Grade: C+

Senator Klobuchar supports cannabis legalization, but the issue is not addressed on her website, which also makes no mention of criminal justice reform.

Tom Steyer

Canna Law Blog Grade: C-

Steyer apparently supports cannabis legalization, but doesn’t have much to say about it. His campaign website mentions ending the war on drugs in the context of criminal justice reform, but doesn’t talk about cannabis specifically.

He did mention his support for legalization in an interview in the context of banking challenges:

“I know that because my wife and I started a community bank that is dedicated to the idea of economic justice, environmental sustainability [and] women- and minority-owned businesses. We know that for us to actually finance marijuana businesses would mean that we would lose the support of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). So, the real question is, don’t we have to change the federal laws so that the FDIC can allow community banks and other banks to support these legal industries in the states where they exist?”

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Canna Law Blog Grade: B+

Senator Warren’s support for legalization has grown and evolved throughout her political life, though, unfortunately, she tends to exaggerate her previous levels of enthusiasm for the subject. 

Warren’s website outlines an extensive plan for criminal justice reform, which actively articulates the failure of the War on Drugs and the imperative for cannabis legalization and criminal expungements in that context:

“For four decades, we’ve subscribed to a ‘War on Drugs’ theory of crime, which has criminalized addiction, ripped apart families — and largely failed to curb drug use. This failure has been particularly harmful for communities of color, and we need a new approach. It starts with legalizing marijuana and erasing past convictions, and then eliminating the remaining disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. And rather than incarcerating individuals with substance abuse disorders, we should expand options that divert them into programs that provide real treatment.”

She does clearly acknowledge the social justice implications of prohibition:

“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.” 

Andrew Yang

Canna Law Blog Grade: B+

Yang’s three biggest policies are Freedom Dividend, Medicare For All, and Human-Centered Capitalism. His support for legalization falls under his plan for criminal justice reform, which includes: 

Yang has stated that cannabis legalization “would improve safety, social equity, and generate tens of billions of dollars in new revenue based on legal cannabis businesses.” 

He has vowed to pardon anyone imprisoned on non-violent marijuana convictions, and would decriminalize all drug use.

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