Editor’s note: We’ll continue to update this page as Democratic presidential candidates formally announce their campaigns and provide greater insight into their cannabis stances. Last updated Dec. 3, 2019.
There‚Äôs no doubt that cannabis will play a major role in the 2020 elections, and it‚Äôs almost certain to be a sticking point in any presidential debate‚ÄĒespecially as a litmus test in the Democratic primaries.
President Donald Trump has gone back and forth on the matter, but has mostly just stayed out of it. His former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was a notorious prohibitionist who repealed the Cole Memo in January 2018, and Trump‚Äôs White House has developed a mysterious interagency called the Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee. No one is very clear on what that means, but BuzzFeed reporter Dominic Holden has described it as a ‚Äúsecret war on weed,‚ÄĚ citing independent quotes from departments involved it the work.¬†
Can Trump reschedule, decriminalize or legalize cannabis on a federal level before the 2020 elections? Sure, but it‚Äôs complicated. And he may very well do one of the above.¬†
¬†For the growing field of Democratic challengers, though, it‚Äôs a race to establish firm footing in the rapidly growing cannabis constituency.¬†
We’ve been tracking Democratic candidates’ cannabis stances throughout the year. Now, with the Dec. 19 Democratic debate looming, we’ve got an updated overview of policy positions.
Let‚Äôs have a look at where possible contenders stand on cannabis.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has¬†openly regretted¬†not running for president in 2016. During his time in the White House, Biden and former President Barack Obama leaned away from legalization as a political solution. They and their U.S. Department of Justice officials, however, did support a greater degree of discretion in law enforcement. The 2013 Cole Memo was enacted under their administration. In 2014, Biden¬†told TIME, ‚ÄúI think the idea of focusing significant resources on interdicting or convicting people for smoking marijuana is a waste of our resources. That’s different than [legalization]. Our policy for our Administration is still not legalization, and that is [and] continues to be our policy.”
Of course, it was under the Obama/Biden administration that Colorado and Washington kicked off the national shift to adult-use cannabis markets. While Biden, as vice president, didn‚Äôt contribute to the political evolution on this issue, his time at the helm of a more liberal society (generally speaking) may provide helpful guidance on how amendable he could be to cannabis reform in the future.¬†
Biden has used the phrase “gateway drug” in conversations about cannabis, but he does support decriminalization. He also supports federal legalization of medical cannabis. See his latest cannabis policy stances here.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has supported cannabis reform efforts by introducing and cosponsoring legislation to end federal prohibition. On June 7, she introduced the STATES Act¬†with Sen. Cory Gardner to echo Cole Memo policy and exempt state-legal regulated marijuana markets from the CSA. On the same day, Warren also¬†co-sponsored¬†the Marijuana Justice Act, which was introduced by Sen. Cory Booker to essentially legalize cannabis at the federal level, removing it from the CSA entirely. Warren also co-sponsored a decriminalization bill¬†introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer¬†earlier this year that would remove cannabis from the CSA and let states regulate it.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) joined Booker in a Facebook Live video earlier this year to extol the virtues of cannabis reform in a democratic society and to¬†voice support as a co-sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act. At a rally for U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee this fall, he said, “God only knows how many hundreds of thousands of lives have been ruined by people who receive police records for the possession of marijuana. And I am very proud that in my state of Vermont and here in California, we’re making progress by legalizing possession of marijuana and in other parts decriminalizing it.”
In 2016, he received a ‚ÄúB‚ÄĚ from NORML. Sanders, of course, ran for president in 2016 and cultivated a popular primary campaign. NORML then endorsed Sanders in his 2018 Senate reelection, and gave him an¬†“A+” grade.¬†
Nearly 7 in 10 Americans‚ÄĒand a majority of both Republicans and Democrats‚ÄĒsupport marijuana legalization.
The American people agree. It is time our federal government listens. We must end the criminalization of marijuana in this country.
‚ÄĒ Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders)¬†April 19, 2019
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has introduced and supported several cannabis reform efforts during his time in Congress, most notably introducing the Marijuana Justice Act in August 2017¬†to end federal prohibition.
‚ÄúOur country‚Äôs drug laws are badly broken and need to be fixed,‚ÄĚ Booker stated in a press release announcing the legislation. ‚ÄúThey don‚Äôt make our communities any safer‚ÄĒinstead, they divert critical resources from fighting violent crimes, tear families apart, unfairly impact low-income communities and communities of color and waste billions in taxpayer dollars each year.‚ÄĚ
Booker has also sponsored the CARERS Act to amend the U.S. Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to allow states to provide access to medical marijuana. He received a B+ grade on NORML‚Äôs 2016 New Jersey Scorecard.
As we work to legalize marijuana nationwide, we‚Äôve got to also ensure equity in the marijuana industry. Communities that have been historically targeted by the failed War on Drugs can’t be left out of opportunities to participate in the legal marijuana economy.
‚ÄĒ Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) April 20, 2019
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) has been out in front of the cannabis reform issue in Washington, D.C., lately, going so far as to¬†say¬†that a pro-cannabis platform is integral to a 2020 campaign for the White House.
Recently, she co-sponsored the House version of the Marijuana Justice Act.
In 2016, she received a B+¬†from NORML.
Legalizing marijuana is a basic question of fairness & freedom for the American people. We must legalize marijuana, expunge the records of those w/ marijuana possession charges/convictions & hold Big Pharma accountable for the opioid epidemic that has killed thousands #420
‚ÄĒ Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard)¬†April 20, 2019
The mayor of South Bend, Ind., has not yet had the opportunity to oversee a cannabis market (medical or otherwise), though he supports reform efforts.¬†‚ÄúThe safe, regulated and legal sale of marijuana is an idea whose time has come for the United States,‚ÄĚ¬†he told the¬†Boston Globe.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has not taken a particularly vocal stance on the cannabis legalization issue. She has stated, however, tacitly, that she supports it.¬†
‚ÄúI support the legalization of marijuana and believe that states should have the right to determine the best approach to marijuana within their borders,” she told the¬†Washington Post earlier this year.
According to NORML, Klobuchar “held a D rating from marijuana advocacy organization NORML, indicating a ‘hard on drugs stance,’ while serving as a prosecutor in her home state, but she was later upgraded to a B while serving in the U.S. Senate.”
While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo¬†proposed adult-use cannabis legalization¬†as part of his state budget on Jan. 16, former New York City mayor and possible presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg disapproves, saying that attempting to legalize recreational marijuana “is perhaps the stupidest thing anybody has ever done,” as first reported by¬†WBNG.
Industry stakeholders are fighting back.
“The antiquated drug enforcement policies Michael Bloomberg implemented as mayor proved to be disastrous and racially discriminatory,” said Evan Nison, a NORML board member. “Unfortunately, it‚Äôs no surprise he would want to continue the failed policy of cannabis prohibition as well. The positive I see in him making this comment is it helping assure he‚Äôll be un-electable by my generation.”
‚ÄúConsidering that most recent polls show at least 70 percent of democrats support legalizing marijuana, it‚Äôs perplexing that Bloomberg would choose such an aggressively anti-marijuana stance so early in the electoral season,” added Sam D’Arcangelo, director of the Cannabis Voter Project. “I can‚Äôt imagine what he thinks he has to gain by staking out that kind of position.”
The other billionaire Democrat in this race, Tom Steyer, has not been vocal about his support for cannabis legalization. Rather, in a recent interview with the¬†Las Vegas Sun, Steyer couched his remarks in a question of banking reform.
“I‚Äôm for legalizing marijuana,” he said. “I‚Äôm from California, we also have legalized marijuana. As long as there is federal deposit insurance and it is illegal according to federal law to sell either medical or recreational marijuana, it‚Äôs impossible for a bank to finance marijuana businesses and get federal deposit insurance.”
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) showed her support for cannabis policy reform in May when she became a co-sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act. ‚ÄúMaking marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do and it‚Äôs the right thing to do,‚ÄĚ she tweeted after the announcement.
Prior to that, Harris was appointed to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in January, where she helped oversee the DOJ and its renewed vigor in marijuana prosecution following the repeal of the Cole Memo.
‚ÄúInstead of going after drug cartels, and violent crime, and major traffickers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going after recreational marijuana users,‚ÄĚ Harris wrote on Jan. 4, when the Cole Memo was revoked. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs not being smart on crime.‚ÄĚ
In April, Harris co-wrote a letter with Sen. Orrin Hatch to call on the DOJ to stop blocking medical marijuana research. ‚ÄúResearch on marijuana is necessary for evidence-based decision making, and expanded research has been called for by President Trump‚Äôs Surgeon General, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the FDA, the CDC, the National Highway Safety Administration, the National Institute of Health, the National Cancer Institute, the National Academies of Sciences, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse,‚ÄĚ the senators wrote.
It‚Äôs time we legalize marijuana at the federal level and restore justice to our communities. Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. We must reverse this trend.
‚ÄĒ Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 20, 2019
Before dropping out of the presidential race, Harris introduced and sponsored the MORE Act in the U.S. Senate. (The U.S. House version of the bill earned passage in the House Judiciary Committee in November.)
NORML PAC also endorsed Rep. Beto O‚ÄôRourke (D-TX) in the November 2018 run for Texas Senator, although O‚ÄôRourke lost to Republican Ted Cruz. ‚ÄúBeto has been a true champion for abolishing our disastrous prohibition on marijuana since the very beginning of his political career as a city council member in El Paso,‚ÄĚ said NORML PAC Executive Director Erik Altieri in a public statement. ‚ÄúWe were pleased to support him in his previous campaign for the House of Representatives and excited to endorse him again in his race for the U.S. Senate.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWe must end the federal prohibition on marijuana in this country,‚ÄĚ O‚ÄôRourke is quoted in NORML‚Äôs blog. ‚ÄúTexas should be leading the way by encouraging comprehensive reforms in drug control policies that have had a devastating effect on communities of color.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúO‚ÄôRourke said the influence of money can be seen in the criminal justice system, because people are jailed for using non-addictive drugs like marijuana, but Purdue Pharma executives who had a hand in marketing dangerous opioids are not serving jail time.‚ÄĚ https://t.co/Lvw3csHk1v
‚ÄĒ Beto O’Rourke (@BetoORourke) April 20, 2019
In 2018, NORML gave Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper a ‚ÄúB‚ÄĚ on his cannabis stance and policy. Hickenlooper was term-limited and could not run for re-election in 2018; he‚Äôll be looking for work.¬†
He‚Äôs openly kicked around the idea of a presidential run. Alan Salazar, a former Hickenlooper strategist in Colorado, told Politico: ‚ÄúI think he has a lane: that lane is of a pragmatic, pro-trade business-oriented Democrat who has a very progressive social record, and a more centrist view of economic issues.‚ÄĚ It‚Äôs a different pitch than the growing contingent of more progressive Democrats winning elections (as in the 2018 midterms), but Hickenlooper did find success in the quasi-battleground state of Colorado‚ÄĒand did oversee the country‚Äôs first adult-use cannabis market. (He even came around to praise the program, eventually.)¬†
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is a political force among the labor segments of the national constituency. He stands for workers, and he‚Äôs made ‚Äúthe dignity of work‚ÄĚ a tentpole campaign theme. But when it comes to cannabis, he has not been openly supportive. (Though the state he represents has been, at best, tepid on the matter as well.) His statements have been cautious, and he‚Äôs fallen back on the idea of cannabis as ‚Äúa gateway drug.‚ÄĚ
How a potential presidential run might change that is as yet unknown.
In 2016, he received a ‚ÄúD‚ÄĚ from NORML on the organization‚Äôs Ohio Scorecard.¬†
Earlier this year Gillibrand joined Booker‚Äôs Marijuana Justice Act and took a firm and vocal stance on cannabis legalization.
‚ÄúMillions of Americans‚Äô lives have been devastated because of our broken marijuana policies, especially in communities of color and low-income communities,‚ÄĚ¬†she said at the time.¬†‚ÄúJust one minor possession conviction could take away a lifetime of opportunities for jobs, education, and housing, tear families apart, and make people more vulnerable to serving time in jail or prison down the road. The reality that my 14-year-old son would likely be treated very differently from one of his Black or Latino peers if he was caught with marijuana is shameful. Legalizing marijuana is a social justice issue and a moral issue that Congress needs to address, and I‚Äôm proud to work with Senator Booker on this legislation to help fix decades of injustice caused by our nation‚Äôs failed drug policies.‚ÄĚ¬†
In 2016, she received a ‚ÄúB+‚ÄĚ from NORML.
65% of Americans agree: We have to legalize marijuana.
It’s critical to dismantling mass incarceration and institutional racism, and to achieving fundamental justice. https://t.co/PHMqorrZ3q
‚ÄĒ Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) April 20, 2019
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has come around on his initial opposition to cannabis legalization (he was elected governor in 2012, the same year that residents of his state approved I-502). Over the past seven years, Inslee has seen the light and worked to promote cannabis reform policies; now, they’re a centerpiece of his campaign for president.
Our nation‚Äôs current drug laws are counterproductive, fueling racial disparities and drug wars. I‚Äôm proud of my state‚Äôs progressive policies on this issue. Now let‚Äôs legalize marijuana nationwide.pic.twitter.com/7QOZTxD17Q
‚ÄĒ Jay Inslee (@JayInslee) April 20, 2019
At 89, former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel (D-AK) is the oldest Democratic candidate running for president. He’s a long shot by any account, but he’s also making sure that the national conversation continues to keep cannabis at the forefront of presidential politics. In June, Gravel announced his plan to pursue a constitutional amendment that would legalize cannabis.
‚ÄúWith my deep knowledge of the Constitution and the current cannabis industry, I believe an amendment to repeal the War on Cannabis could easily secure the two-thirds vote needed in the House,‚ÄĚ stated Sen. Gravel. ‚ÄúIf the Senate fails to pass the legislation, we would use the power of ratification by individual states to achieve the goal, just as was done to repeal alcohol prohibition 85 years ago.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-MA) has historically voted ‚Äúno‚ÄĚ on legislation aimed at reforming cannabis policies. In 2015, he voted against the McClintock/Polis Amendment, which would have prevented the Department of Justice (DOJ) from prosecuting people for the use, sale and possession of marijuana in a state in which it is legal. He voted against the Rohrabacher/Farr Amendment the same year, as well as the Veterans Equal Access Amendment in both 2015 and 2016, which would have improved veterans‚Äô access to medical marijuana. He received a D grade from NORML on the organization‚Äôs¬†2016 Massachusetts Scorecard.
But then, just this month, he¬†authored an op-ed for STAT News¬†that recast his stance as supportive of federal legalization. What his support will actually look like in the months ahead remains unclear. He provided the Democratic rebuttal to the 2018 State of the Union address, which is often an indicator of a future political spotlight.¬†