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Marijuana Politics in the 2020 Election 

Cannabis is set to be a hot topic in the 2020 US election, with two-thirds of Americans now supporting full legalization. Intriguingly, marijuana is a rare political issue in the current climate where voters on both sides agree. Millions of people across the country are either benefiting directly from cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabis products, or know somebody who is. 

Perspectives toward marijuana have changed drastically over the past couple of decades, following the introduction of medical legislation in California, Colorado and elsewhere. Recreational laws have also steadily been coming in since 2014, to widespread approval. America is, in many ways, already ahead of the curve on cannabis legalization. However, this is only because states are taking control. Cannabis remains, as it has for several decades, a Schedule 1 substance according to the federal government. 

Given weed’s newfound popularity, the ever-present opioid epidemic, and the small matter of an election looming, there could be immense political capital to be made from embracing legalization. As of 2019, only Uruguay and Canada have legalized recreational marijuana. 

Legalization doesn’t just promise to improve the overall health of Americans, by offering safer drug alternatives. The cannabis industry could also be very lucrative, and a shot in the arm for the economy. With automation set to eat away at employment numbers over the next few years, a booming cannabis industry could create tens of thousands of jobs, if not more. 

The Democratic race is already up and running, with more than 20 declared candidates looking to take on President Donald Trump in 2020. Let’s take a look at the cannabis stances held by the primary’s key runners and riders.

Joe Biden 

As of summer 2019, Biden is the front-runner in the race for the nomination. The 76-year-old was Barack Obama’s vice president and is viewed as a moderate force in the Democrat party. Biden is supportive of cannabis reform, however he has stopped short of endorsing full legalization. 

The Pennsylvania politician has been in Washington for more than 40 years, but represented Delaware as a senator from 1973 to 2009. During that time, Biden was a key player behind tough criminal penalties for non-violent drug users, including cannabis. Biden has moved with public opinion somewhat, but is apparently in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, not legalizing.

However, cannabis advocates have serious concerns about what decriminalization would mean for the industry’s future. If marijuana becomes a Schedule II substance, a downgrade from its current Schedule I status, there are fears that dispensaries could disappear overnight. This is because making marijuana Schedule II, and enforcing this, would only permit cannabis to be sold for specific medical reasons. The recreational and wellness industries could easily be cracked down upon. In recent times, federal government agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have relaxed somewhat on weed. But if federal law changes, the DEA could perhaps be emboldened to try another – albeit unpopular – cannabis crackdown. 

Whether Biden is aware of this and is bringing his anti-drug stance to the fore, or if he simply hasn’t recognized the possible ramifications of his plan remains to be seen. But if cannabis does take center stage during the election cycle, the front-runner is sure to come under scrutiny. 

Bernie Sanders

Sanders lost out to Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2016, but is back for another go in 2020. The Independent Vermont Senator was leading the contest until Biden jumped in, and styles himself as a democratic socialist. Vermont is one of more than 10 states that have legalized marijuana, and Sanders takes an unsurprisingly progressive position. 

Sanders strongly advocated for legal marijuana in 2016, and has adopted a novel approach in 2020. On Joe Rogan’s podcast, Sanders has said that he would remove cannabis from the Schedule I list via executive order. This is interesting since Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has consistently resisted marijuana legislation. Despite this, McConnell is a firm advocate of hemp, which could stimulate economic growth in Kentucky, the state he represents.

Sanders commented that he had previously taken cannabis, when speaking with Rogan. Also central to any marijuana reform under a Sanders administration would be criminal justice reform. He has called for the expungement of cannabis convictions, with an emphasis on nonviolent offenses. 

Elizabeth Warren

Warren is also viewed as on the progressive side of the Democrat party. The senator for Massachusetts, a state that has legalized recreationally, has been a firm advocate for legalization in recent years. Warren has spoken out about how arrests for cannabis use are higher among African Americans than whites. She proposes that legalizing would be a big step toward criminal justice reform.

Warren is highly competitive in the race for the nomination, consistently polling in the top four. Barring a campaign disaster, she will likely garner big support from the left of the Democrat party. If she can win over more centrist elements, it’s possible she’ll be facing down Trump in 2020. 

Kamala Harris 

Harris has been a Democrat Senator for California since 2017, and is also in the top quartet of candidates, according to recent polling. The 54-year-old is a former District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California. Conventional wisdom views her as one of the favorites for the nomination. 

Harris has been vocal about her support for cannabis reform recently, going so far as to introduce a decriminalization bill into Congress. However, historically, her views have not always been so clear cut. While she approved early on of medical marijuana politically, in 2010 as SF District Attorney, Harris was against legalization. In 2014, running against Republican Ron Gold for Attorney General, Harris laughed at calls for legalizing. She said that Gold, who was in favor of legalizing, was “entitled to his opinion.”

But lately, Harris has been on a charm offensive regarding marijuana. Notably, in 2018, she signed up to the Marijuana Justice Act, which was introduced by fellow 2020 candidate Cory Booker. Harris even joked on the ‘Breakfast Club’ radio show that she had smoked cannabis in the 1980s. 

It’s clear that Senator Harris has changed a lot on cannabis over the past decade. Whether this is thanks to genuine evolving on the issue, thanks to the facts changing, or a more cynical ploy to win support is something that only the voters can decide. 

Pete Buttigieg 

Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The 37-year-old is proving a dark horse in the race for the Democratic nomination. Buttigieg’s campaign has caught fire in recent months, slinging him into the top tier of candidates. The Hoosier would be America’s youngest president, and it’s perhaps no shock that he is keen on legal cannabis, for both recreational and medical purposes.

Buttigieg has not signed any cannabis legislation during his time as mayor. However, it’s apparent that he is keenly aware of the issue. Buttigieg approved an ordinance that blocked businesses in South Bend from selling products with synthetic cannabinoids in 2017. He noted that synthetic cannabinoids are a huge concern, and has said that the topic hasn’t received much attention. 

In a Boston Globe interview, Buttigieg said that is time for the “regulated and legal sale of marijuana” in the US. Mayor Pete based his position largely on the strong public support for legalization. 

Cory Booker 

Booker has been the junior Senator for New Jersey since 2013, and has been a strong advocate for cannabis reform in Congress. Indeed, Booker has already introduced a bill that would federally legalize cannabis. The Marijuana Justice Act has earned the support of several 2020 contenders, including Harris, Warren and Sanders. 

Booker has discussed how cannabis legalization is vital for criminal justice reform. He has talked about how a cannabis conviction can haunt a person for life, making it more difficult to get jobs, acquire business licenses and even receive food assistance. 

The Senator is one of, if not the strongest pro-pot voice in the 2020 race. Booker is not in the top tier of candidates as yet, but is regularly polling in the top half of candidates. As of August 2019, Booker is one of nine to have qualified for the third and fourth Democrat debates, set to take place in September and October. 

Beto O’Rourke 

O’Rourke came to the attention of Democrats across the US in 2018, after narrowly losing a Texas Senate contest to Republican Ted Cruz. He has since become a candidate in the 2020 race, and is one of the strongest voices for legal cannabis. O’Rourke campaigned to end cannabis prohibition as early as 2009, putting him way ahead of the curve. The El Paso native also called for legal cannabis in last year’s Senate race.

Andrew Yang

Yang is considered a long-shot in the 2020 race, as one of the few candidates not to have held elected office. But the 44-year-old has come up with a number of interesting policies that have earned him a strong, internet-based support. Yang’s outsider campaign has made him more popular than several elected politicians in the race. The entrepreneur has also met the polling and donor requirements to make the third and fourth debates. 

On cannabis, Yang’s policy is typically quirky. He is in favor of legalization, for safety and social equity, but also because of the billions of dollars it would raise in tax revenues. Yang also supports legalizing because it would bring regulation to the industry. In a nod to stoners everywhere, Yang has said that he would legalize and expunge convictions for non-violent offenders on April 20, 2021 – or 4/20. 

Yang also has a policy to give every American adult $1000 a month, no questions asked, as part of a universal basic income plan. Just think how much marijuana you could buy with that!  

Donald Trump

What could upend everything is if the President himself comes out for legalization. Trump’s political views on marijuana are unlikely to be concrete. With winning the ultimate priority, it’s perfectly possible that Trump throws his weight behind legal marijuana. This would go against the long-held positions of the Republican Party, but Trump has proven that he is anything but a conventional leader. The Trump administration has been notoriously anti-cannabis at points. However, this may have more to do with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ fierce opposition toward marijuana. 

With cannabis support so high, even among Republicans, it could be a vote-winner in 2020 if Trump is against changing marijuana laws. Supporting legal weed would unlikely be out of any moral conviction, but it would be an effective way of neutralizing the cannabis debate. If both candidates are in favor, it would make legal cannabis across the United States a reality by the early 2020s. 

Final thoughts 

Let’s recap on where the 2020 candidates stand on cannabis: 

  • Joe Biden has called for decriminalization, but not legalization 
  • Bernie Sanders has promised to legalize via executive order 
  • Kamala Harris is now supportive of marijuana, after previously being anti-pot
  • Andrew Yang wants to legalize marijuana on 4/20 2021 
  • Donald Trump is currently against legal marijuana 
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