Where the 2020 Democratic candidates for president stand on marijuana legalization
The Democrats running for president have thoughts on marijuana legalization. Here they are.
Jars of dried marijuana flowers sit inside a display cabinet at the Denver-based Medicine Man marijuana store. This marijuana is legal to sell to adults under Colorado law, but remains illegal at the federal level. TREVOR HUGHES / USA TODAY
DENVER — The Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination all share a commitment to reducing the penalties for using and possessing marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level. Many of them support full legalization — as permitted in 11 states and the District of Columbia — while others prefer to see the federal government remove it as a Schedule 1 controlled substance and proceed more carefully.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet
Bennett, of Colorado, is one of the sponsors of the Marijuana Justice Act, an ambitious U.S. Senate proposal aimed at overhauling the War on Drugs. The plan would end federal restrictions on cannabis research and automatically expunge federal convictions for marijuana use and possession offenses. The proposal would also create a community reinvestment fund to help communities hurt by the War on Drugs, and encourage states to change their marijuana laws if they’re found to disproportionately affect low-income people or minorities.
Bennett has also pushed the Trump administration to help existing marijuana businesses gain access to the banking system, and strongly advocated for hemp as a cash crop.
“As a former school superintendent in a state that has legalized marijuana, Michael is also focused on policies to ensure young people do not have access to it,” his campaign said in a statement.
Former vice president Biden is the highest-profile candidate who stops short of full legalization. Instead, he’s calling for decriminalization and rescheduling, criminal-record expungement and increased research access. He wants to let states decide whether to legalize.
“Biden believes no one should be in jail because of cannabis use,” his campaign said in a statement.
Critics say Biden is trying to tread a narrow path that’s acceptable to both younger voters who favor legalization and older voters who remember his years helping wage the War on Drugs.
“As president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions,” his campaign said in a statement. “And, he will support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, and reschedule cannabis as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
Although it hasn’t been a major platform plank, de Blasio supports marijuana legalization and backed plans to permit it in New York state and New York City during his tenure as mayor. But he has also repeatedly called for caution when it comes to commercial cannabis sales. In a letter announcing his support for New York legalization, de Blasio warned of the dangers of large-scale commercial cannabis operations.
“For decades, Big Tobacco knew its product was both deadly and addictive. But it denied, obscured, advertised, and lobbied its way into America’s homes, targeting children. For decades, Big Oil knew its product was choking the human race on the only planet we have. Yet, it did its level best to create an economy based on fossil fuels,” de Blasio wrote in his December 2018 recommendation that New York legalize marijuana. “More recently, Big Pharma peddled opioids as a safe, non-addictive cure for pain. Now, Americans are crushed by a plague of overdose deaths. We can’t let cannabis follow that course.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker
Booker of New Jersey is another sponsor of the Senate’s Marijuana Justice Act. Booker has a long history of pushing for marijuana reform, and the former Newark mayor says the country needs to do more than just reduce criminal prosecutions.
“The end we seek is not just legalization, it’s justice,” Booker said in announcing his plan in February.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock
In a statement, Bullock’s campaign said he supports giving states the right to legalize marijuana if they see fit, along with increasing access to medical marijuana.
“Gov. Bullock believes the criminalization of marijuana has ruined the lives of too many Americans and cost taxpayers too much money imprisoning non-violent offenders, and supports legalization and taxation of marijuana with appropriate regulations to prevent abuse,” his campaign said. “The governor will work to remove barriers at the federal level that conflict with states’ decisions to have medical marijuana or legalize it outright.”
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg has perhaps the most liberal policy position of all the candidates, calling for the decriminalization of all drugs. He argues the country needs to address the underlying reasons why people use drugs, and says counseling, not convictions, is the proper approach.
“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions. When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell,” he said in a statement.
Buttigieg falls for eliminating incarceration for drug possession, reducing sentences for other drug offenses, applying these reductions retroactively, and also expunging past convictions.
Pointing to a statement on Twitter, Castro’s campaign said he supports legalizing marijuana and expunging past criminal records: “It’s not enough just to say we want to #LegalizeIt. We will also regulate it, taking best practices of states that have successfully legalized marijuana. And while we’re at it, we’ll expunge the records of folks who’ve been incarcerated for using it.” Castro served as a secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, after a stint as mayor of San Antonio.
Delaney has supported some marijuana-related legislation in Congress — he represented Maryland in the House from 2013 through January — but has not made it a major campaign platform. He has supported, in particular, proposals to permit veterans to use medical marijuana as part of their official care, and has also supported banking reforms. His campaign says he supports rescheduling marijuana and wants to “create strong federal guidelines and taxation policies to support decisions at the state level.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
Gabbard calls for decriminalizing marijuana and studying the effects of state-level legalization.
“Our outdated policies on marijuana are having devastating ripple effects on individuals and communities across the country,” the congresswoman from Hawaii said in a statement. “They have turned everyday Americans into criminals, torn apart families, and wasted huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate people for non-violent marijuana charges. 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.”
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris
Along with Booker, Harris of California is one of the sponsors of the Marijuana Justice Act.
Harris has been criticized by some cannabis activists for the role she played as a prosecutor and California attorney general in prosecuting drug crimes. Harris has also argued for ending the use of private prisons while simultaneously addressing the need for treatment and rehabilitation of drug users.
As part of her efforts, Harris supports a “ban-the-box” proposal that stops employers from routinely asking if someone has an arrest or conviction on their record.
“To help ensure those returning from prison and jail can successfully re-enter their communities, Kamala will start by fighting to expunge records for marijuana offenses, increase investments in reentry support and job training programs, and take executive action to ‘ban the box’ so employers consider a job candidate’s qualifications first—without the stigma of a former conviction,” according to her campaign.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar
A former prosecutor, the Minnesota senator has not spoken widely about marijuana as a campaign issue. However, in a brief statement, her campaign said she “supports decriminalization and legalization” but didn’t offer any details about the specifics.
Klobuchar has questioned the Trump administration over a potential crackdown on state-legal marijuana programs, and has co-sponsored legislation aimed at protecting state-level legalization. She also supports criminal-justice reform to reduce mass incarceration.
Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam
Messam calls for the federal government to permit states to legalize marijuana if they want, without fear of a national crackdown.
“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,” he said in a statement on his website.
In a statement, O’Rourke’s campaign noted he’s been calling for legalization for at least a decade, and even called for an “open debate” on ending narcotics prohibition while serving on the El Paso City Council. He also published a 2011 book condemning the War on Drugs, and while in Congress from 2013 through January, he cosponsored legislation to decriminalize marijuana.
“As president, Beto would take action to end the prohibition of marijuana and expunge the arrest records of those incarcerated for possessing it,” his campaign said.
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan
Ryan of Ohio has called the country’s marijuana laws “morally wrong” and “economically nonsensical,” and has repeatedly supported legislation while in Congress to loosen marijuana laws and address the social ills caused by the War on Drugs.
“I am proud to stand on the side of justice by cosponsoring legislation to begin righting the wrongs of decades of misinformed drug policy and make marijuana legal in all 50 states,” Ryan said in a July statement on Twitter.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders
Sanders of Vermont is also one of the sponsors of the Marijuana Justice Act, an ambitious U.S. Senate proposal aimed at righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs. The plan would end the federal restrictions on cannabis research and automatically expunge federal convictions for marijuana use and possession offenses. As a candidate for president, Sanders has tied marijuana legalization to the greater need for criminal justice reform.
“The disastrous policies that make up the War on Drugs have not reduced drug use and violent crime. We must use effective therapeutic, not punitive, solutions to address drug addiction,” he said in a statement.
In a statement, Sestak called for increased federal research on the dangers of marijuana abuse and potentially developing warning labels on products. And he said he’s had personal concerns about the readiness and safety of his fellow sailors while serving in the Navy, including as a three-star admiral. Sestak also represented Pennsylvania in Congress from 2007 to 2011.
“But I recognize that the prohibition of marijuana has led to far worse effects on society than the drug itself, particularly as it has led to millions of people — mainly people of color — being arrested,” he said. “Therefore I will move to decriminalize and legalize it for medicinal use, but leave it up to individual states to decide whether or not to legalize it for recreational purposes.”
Steyer, a billionaire investor and philanthropist, has spoken little about marijuana legalization. In an August interview with the Las Vegas Sun , Steyer said he supports marijuana legalization and noted that he can’t invest in cannabis businesses because it remains federally illegal. His campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Warren of Massachusetts is another sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act, an ambitious U.S. Senate proposal aimed at righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs. Warren ties marijuana decriminalization and legalization to a broader need for criminal justice reform.
“It’s not equal justice when a kid with an ounce of pot can get thrown in jail while a bank executive who launders money for a drug cartel can get a bonus. It’s not equal justice when, for the exact same crimes, African Americans are more likely than whites to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to be sentenced,” she said in a statement. “We need criminal justice reform and we need it now. That means ending racial disparities in our justice system. It means banning private prisons. It means embracing community policing and demilitarizing our local police forces. It means comprehensive sentencing reform and rewriting our laws to decriminalize marijuana.”
A best-selling author and activist, Williamson wants to do more than legalize marijuana — she also wants to see nonviolent drug offenders released from prison. “The most dangerous drug dealers in America are legal pharmaceutical companies that knowingly overmanufacture, falsely advertise & promote overprescription of addictive substances,” she said on Twitter.
A tech entrepreneur and philanthropist, Yang calls for federal legalization after noting that 11 states already permit recreational cannabis. In a statement, he noted that marijuana is widely accepted as safer than some prescription painkillers.
“I don’t love marijuana. I’d rather people not use it heavily. But it’s vastly safer than people becoming addicted to opiates like heroin. And our criminalization of it seems stupid and racist, particularly now that it’s legal in some states. We should proceed with full legalization of marijuana and pardon those in jail for non-violent marijuana-related offenses,” he said.
The Democrats running for president have thoughts on marijuana legalization. Here they are.
Column: Proposition 207, not Donald Trump, stirred the pot in the newly altered state of Arizona
Less than 10 minutes from my home in Maricopa County stood a Trump pop-up shop, and for the last two months I’ve watched a small but consistent stream of supporters pull over to stock up on paraphernalia. One day last week, as I pulled over to see what quirky merch they were offering, I caught a familiar whiff: marijuana.
And for a moment I thought, these are my people.
Turns out I was right.
As much of the country’s attention has understandably been focused on Arizona’s 11 electoral votes — and its somewhat stunning pivot away from the Goldwaterian reputation that has defined the state for more than a half century — there’s another result here that has significant national implications.
The fate of the presidency still hangs in the balance as President Trump and Joe Biden duel over a few remaining battleground states.
Proposition 207, the ballot measure to legalize the possession and use of recreational marijuana in the state, passed with nearly 60% of the vote. This after a similar attempt to legalize failed in 2016. To fully understand how breathtakingly popular this change is for the Grand Canyon State, consider this: The 1.8 million votes (and counting) in favor of Proposition 207 exceeded the vote totals for both presidential candidates.
Historically, marijuana legalization has been a liberal/independent cause, so to see Arizona — a state that has gone red in 16 of the last 17 general elections — say yes to pot is a true sign that it’s time for the federal government to reconsider its position on the issue. A position, mind you, that was authored by President Nixon not for reasons of health or science, but rather simple prejudice, according to Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman.
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” he reportedly said 26 years ago in an interview that Harper’s Magazine published in 2016. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Even as decisive presidential election votes remained to be counted, Arizonans, both Democrat and Republican, rallied to legalize recreational marijuana.