What will the next president’s stance on cannabis be? As the year progresses, the presidential field narrows: what was once filled with more than a dozen candidates has now been reduced to just a few. Ahead of what will be perhaps one of the most dividing elections we’ll see in our lifetime, we thought that now might be a good time to take another look at where the remaining candidates stand on the multitude of options and challenges the future of the cannabis industry faces.
In this blog, we’ll focus on the parties that earned at least 1% of the popular vote in 2016. That means we’re going to look at the candidates for the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, and Green Parties. These parties have nominated, or are likely to nominate, Donald Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Jo Jorgensen, and Howie Hawkins, respectively. Let’s take a look at where each candidate stands on topics such as descheduling, decriminalization, and the legalization of cannabis.
Donald Trump’s Stance on Cannabis
First things first, Donald Trump is running for re-election this year. The Republican incumbent has been fairly vague on his cannabis stance over the years. In the past, Trump has praised legislation that would permanently protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention. However, more recently a Trump campaign aide said the administration’s policy is that cannabis should remain illegal.
Trump’s Actions Speak Louder than His Words
Trump’s proposed annual budget plans have attempted to remove a provision that protects state medical cannabis programs from Justice Department interference for the last three years. Though Congress has continually included it in the budget, Trump has claimed he reserves the right to ignore the provision to faithfully execute the laws of the United States.
While the President has voiced support for letting states make their own decisions and exempting state cannabis programs from federal interference, he also continually surrounds himself with staffers who oppose relaxing cannabis laws. From picking Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, who famously dropped the Cole Memo in early 2018, to hiring Kayleigh McEnany earlier this year to serve as press secretary, many in the administration are against cannabis reform.
Attorney General Barr is Under Scrutiny
Most recently, the current Attorney General has come under scrutiny for his investigations into cannabis companies. A whistleblower testified that William Barr’s personal bias led him to open antitrust investigations into several cannabis company mergers. The cases made up roughly one-third of the division’s cases last year.
The whistleblower claimed these cases did not meet the criteria for antitrust investigations, were objected to by career staff, and were a waste of department resources. When staff determined the mergers were not an antitrust concern, Barr allegedly ordered them to continue the investigations. This news has led dozens of legislators to pursue a resolution that would open an inquiry into Barr’s possible impeachment for abusing the power of his office.
It’s safe to say the Trump administration’s position on cannabis is hard to read. However, with the staff Trump likes to surround himself with and the legislative priorities of the administration so far, cannabis reform seems unlikely while Trump is in office. If any reform is made, it will likely only include specific protections for aspects of the industry that are currently ambiguous, such as cannabis banking.
Joe Biden’s Stance on Cannabis
While it’s not official yet, at this point it is safe to say Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee. The former Vice President has an extensive anti-drug background over the course of his political career that concerns many cannabis reform advocates.
Biden’s History on Criminal Justice is Problematic
Biden played a role in developing the Office of National Drug Control Policy, an agency that has led to an increase in enforcement and incarceration efforts, among other things. He also helped author the infamous 1994 Crime Bill, which imposed strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, provided funds to build more prisons, and encouraged officers to make more drug-related arrests.
Many blame the 1994 Crime Bill as a main driver in the escalation of the War on Drugs that ultimately led to our current situation. According to FBI data, the highest number of arrests in the U.S. during 2018 were for drug-related violations. Cannabis-related violations made up 40% of those arrests.
Biden May Be Coming Around on Cannabis
It seems, however, that Biden’s opinions on cannabis may have shifted since the 90s. His campaign has recently started pushing decriminalization, automatic record expungement, and increasing research for medical cannabis as part of more broad policy proposals.
The former vice president’s support seems to end at medical cannabis reform though. Biden has voiced support for decriminalizing the possession and use of cannabis, as well as for rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug to allow more research on the plant. As we have written before, rescheduling cannabis to Schedule II will bring plenty of new problems with it, and does little to address the current conflict between state cannabis programs and federal laws.
Many reform advocates hope Joe Biden will reconsider some of his views on cannabis in light of recent events that have driven a closer look at criminal justice policies. Polling also suggests that a majority of Americans support legalization.
Much of that hope relied on a working group formed between Biden and Bernie Sanders that set out to find policy solutions for various issues. However, earlier this month the criminal justice working group released its policy recommendations for Biden. The recommendations provided more detail for Joe Biden’s stance on cannabis, but fell short of supporting legalization or descheduling cannabis.
Biden’s policy proposals support some positive reform, but fall short of the level of reform many would hope for from the Democratic nominee this year. Still, some advocates are holding out hope for cannabis reform at the federal level. Despite the conclusions of the working group and Biden’s public stance on cannabis, one Senator claims congress will legalize marijuana next year if Democrats gain control of the Senate and the White House.
Dr. Jo Jorgensen’s Stance on Cannabis
The Libertarian Party has chosen Dr. Jo Jorgensen as its nominee this year. Jorgensen has been involved with the Libertarian Party for decades, and previously ran as the party’s Vice-Presidential nominee in 1996. While she has not given specific details, she says she will work with Congress to end the War on Drugs, and that doing so would be a top priority if she were elected. She has also promised to pardon all nonviolent, victimless offenders in federal prisons on her first day in office.
Howie Hawkins’ Stance on Cannabis
While the Green Party has not officially declared their candidate this year, Howie Hawkins is the likely choice. He has been involved with the Green Party since its inception and has run as the party’s candidate for New York Governor in each election since 2010. Howie Hawkins has proposed descheduling cannabis and repealing criminal laws for cannabis offenses.
He supports a regulated cannabis industry that allows for both medical and adult-use markets. Hawkins also supports social equity policies for the industry that give preference to those impacted by the War on Drugs, and spending cannabis tax revenue on businesses and communities hit hardest by the drug war.