With the Democratic primaries for the 2020 presidential nomination suspended due to the Coronavirus crisis, now is a good time to take stock of the contest and its implications for the cannabis reform movement.
From a crowded field of nominees, the race has narrowed to two serious candidates: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Prior to the suspension of the contest, Biden built up a lead of delegates over Sanders with big wins on Super Tuesday, as well as receiving endorsements from many of the former candidates who’d dropped out of the race. While some have described Biden’s lead as unassailable, Sanders still enjoys a committed grassroots’ following who will continue to push for his nomination.
Either Bernie or Biden will face off against President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election. What would each of their potential victories against Trump mean for the country’s marijuana laws?
While pretty much all of the Democratic candidates for the 2020 nomination support marijuana legalization, Biden remained an outlier. As recently as November, 2019, Biden repeated debunked theories about marijuana by saying “there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug.”
While he backtracked on these comments in the face of overwhelming criticism, it actually marked a softening in his position on cannabis. Throughout his political career, Biden has been a defender and architect of the nation’s War on Drugs. As a senator, he helped draft the 1994 Crime Bill which heralded an era of harsh punishments for low-level drug crimes. This led to the US having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Since launching his presidential bid, Biden has changed tack on cannabis out of necessity. An overwhelming majority of Democratic voters support marijuana legalization, and all his rivals for the nomination reflected this in their own positions on the issue. But Biden is still opposed to adult-use cannabis legalization, and even recently suggested that low-level marijuana possession should remain a misdemeanour. Now he is on record as supporting federal cannabis decriminalization and expunging the marijuana-related criminal records he is largely responsible for saddling people with. Stopping short of full legalization in a recent interview with Judith Nwandu from The Shade Room, he argues that more research into the plant is necessary to determine whether it is harmful. Biden has, however, come out in support of federally legalizing marijuana for medical purposes and said he would respect state policy on cannabis legalization.
Sen. Sanders, by contrast, has been consistent on cannabis reform throughout his long political career. As far back as 1972, Sanders promised that if he were elected to the Senate as Vermont’s Liberty Union Party candidate, he’d rally against “all laws relating to prohibition of abortion, birth control, homosexual relations, and the use of drugs.”
During the last Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders became the first major presidential candidate to call for federal descheduling of cannabis, and he submitted a bill in 2015 to do just that. In his campaign for the nomination against Hilary Clinton, Sanders said “too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That’s wrong. That has got to change.”
His position this time around has, if anything, hardened. In October, 2019, Sanders released a comprehensive plan for cannabis legalization. If elected, he would sign an executive order on his first day in office to deschedule marijuana as a controlled substance. While legal scholars have questioned the viability of this, Sanders said he would only appoint cabinet officials who are supportive of these aims to help push the reform through.
A large part of Sanders’ marijuana legalization plan is devoted to social equity and restorative justice to help undo the harms of prohibition, which typically fall on already marginalized communities. As well as expunging prior cannabis convictions, Sanders would promote the participation of members of those communities in the burgeoning cannabis industry. Related to this, he would seek to prevent companies forming monopolies in the marijuana market by pursuing market and franchise caps, and incentivizing the formation of cannabis cooperatives and nonprofits.
The choice between the two candidates is clear. Biden proposes modest reforms, but his record and past comments on drug laws makes him untrustworthy. If Biden faced off against Trump, it is likely the issue would not feature very prominently given the two are not so far apart from one another. Neither would pursue executive action and both have expressed a preference for letting states determine their own cannabis policy.
A nomination for a Bernie Sanders presidency would play out very differently. Sanders is, and always has been, a committed advocate for comprehensive marijuana legalization. His outspoken consistency and pursuit of a radical overhaul of federal drug laws would likely force Trump to take a more definitive position on marijuana legalization, an issue which now enjoys comfortable majority support among the American population.