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Where U.S. presidential hopefuls stand on cannabis legalization

Where U.S. presidential hopefuls stand on cannabis legalization

Bernie Sanders

Over 90% of Americans support the legalization of medical cannabis, according to a major poll from late 2019. Two-thirds support full legalization.

So with the 2020 presidential primaries beginning and the general election not so far away, where do the candidates stand?

The following is a summary of the publicly stated positions on marijuana legalization, medical cannabis, and how to treat prior marijuana convictions.

The candidates are presented in alphabetical order.

Joe Biden

Legalization: Decriminalization
Medical: Yes 
Expunge Criminal Records: Yes 

Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden at a campaign event, May 4, 2019. (Crush Rush/Shutterstock)

Former Vice President and Delaware Senator Joe Biden has faced criticism and scrutiny from the left during his presidential bid over his criminal justice record as a senator. In particular, in regards to his support for the policies of the drug war and the 1994 crime bill.

He also drew heat for his statement at a town hall in Las Vegas in November, 2019 in which he expressed concern that marijuana could be “a gateway drug” and said that he would need to see more science supporting the measure “before I legalize it nationally.” A week later, he told reporters in a conference call that he doesn’t think it’s a gateway drug and hasn’t seen any evidence to suggest that it is.

Previously, in 2010 as vice president, he stated that “I still believe it’s a gateway drug. I’ve spent a lot of my life as chairman of the [Senate] Judiciary Committee dealing with this. I think it would be a mistake to legalize.”

In July, 2019 Biden released the details of his criminal justice plan “The Biden Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice.”

The plan calls to “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions. Biden believes no one should be in jail because of cannabis use. As president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions. 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.”

The plan also vows to reduce incarceration, saying “no one should be incarcerated for drug use alone.” 

Michael Bloomberg 

Legalization: No
Medical: No 
Expunge Criminal Records: Unclear

Michael Bloomberg
Former New York Mayor and presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg at a campaign event, January 15, 2020. (JStone/Shutterstock)

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign website makes no mention of marijuana and the candidate has been the subject of criticism as of late for his stance on legalization, making him something of an outlier among the Democratic field when it comes to the issue. 

In January, 2019, Bloomberg stated that legalizing marijuana “is perhaps the stupidest thing anybody has ever done. We’ve got to fight that, and that’s another thing that Bloomberg Philanthropies will work on it in public health.”

In February, when asked by a journalist from Colorado “are the people of Colorado stupid for legalizing it?”, Bloomberg said, “Colorado has a right to do what they want to do. I would advise going slowly to any other state because it’s not clear, doctors aren’t sure whether or not it’s doing damage. But if a state wants to do it, and Colorado and Washington were the first two that did it, that’s up to the state.”

He added “but what I really object to is putting people in jail for marijuana. That’s really dumb.”

According to a 2013 report, from 2002-2012, there were 440,000 marijuana arrests in New York City. (Bloomberg was mayor from 2002-2013)

Pete Buttigieg  

Legalization: Full 
Medical: Yes 
Expunge Criminal Records: Yes

Pete Buttigieg
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, April 4, 2019. (JStone/Shutterstock)

The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana states on the criminal justice section of his official campaign website that he will “eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses and apply these reductions retroactively, and legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions.”

The vow is included in his “Securing Justice: Reforming Our Criminal Legal System” platform, and is part of his efforts to reduce incarceration and “transform the criminal legal system to one that truly promotes justice, and benefits all of us.” The platform is largely devoted to ending the racial disparities in sentencing and the way in which “our criminal justice system applies immense and often unchecked pressure on the most vulnerable— particularly Black, Latinx, and low-income people…We must rebalance our justice system to reflect fairness.”

In his platform, Buittigieg lists the following campaign promise: 

“Legalize marijuana and automatically expunge past convictions. Pete will push Congress to pass legislation requiring that a significant percentage of tax revenue flowing from legalization is directed back to the communities and people most devastated by the war on drugs. Further, Pete will develop programs targeted at supporting entrepreneurship of people with marijuana convictions, particularly people of color, in the newly-legalized industry.”

At a February campaign stop in Iowa, Buttigieg also vowed that if his efforts to legalize failed, he would “fly it directly into the home district of a member who is standing in the way — not just of me, but of his own voters and have a conversation with the voters about why this needs to happen.”

Amy Klobuchar 

Legalization: Yes
Medical: Yes 
Expunge Criminal Records: Unclear (supports establishing a special clemency board)

Amy Klobuchar
Presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar at a Democratic Party event, August 23, 2019. (Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock)

In February 2019, the Minnesota senator expressed her support for legalization saying: “I support the legalization of marijuana and believe that states should have the right to determine the best approach to marijuana within their borders.”

Klobuchar was also one of the 13 representatives to cosponsor the STATES Act which “ensures that each state has the right to determine for itself the best approach to mariuana within its borders.”

Her views have evolved considerably since her campaign for Hennepin County (Minnesota) attorney 20 years ago, during which she said: “I am opposed to the legalization of marijuana. I believe when you look at across the world what’s been happening people have realized that legalizing drugs is not the answer.”

In her campaign for senator in 2018, Klobuchar said she supports maintaining the current legal situation in Minnesota in regard to marijuana (medical marijuana program, no legal recreational marijuana) but also opposes attempts by the federal government to interfere with state’s ability to make their own laws regarding marijuana. 

Regardless of her past stances on marjuana, on her website, Klobuchar states that in her first 100 days she will “start the evaluation process to reschedule marijuana, collecting the required scientific and medical evaluations and recommendations.”

Bernie Sanders

Legalization: Full 
Medical: Yes
Expunge Criminal Records: Yes 

Bernie Sanders
Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in South Carolina, January 21, 2019. (Crush Rush/Shutterstock)

On his website, the Vermont Senator makes his stance on marijuana legalization very clear, with a single quote across the page: 

“We will legalize marijuana and vacate and expunge past marijuana convictions.”

As he describes it, Sanders’ policy will not require any action by Congress, instead, legalization will be carried out by way of an executive order in the first 100 days of his presidency, and he says he will support efforts “to make sure victims of the War on Drugs are not passed over by the burgeoning marijuana industry.” 

He lists the following bullet points:

  • Legalize marijuana in the first 100 days with executive action 
  • Vacate and expunge all past marijuana-related convictions 
  • Ensure that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs 
  • Ensure legalized marijuana does not turn into big tobacco

Sanders describes his approach to marijuana legalization as part of a wider story about race in America, and an effort to right historical wrongs.

“It is time to admit the criminalization of marijuana was a disaster,” Sanders states.

Sanders first released the details of his plan at 4:20pm Eastern time in late October, 2019.

Donald Trump 

Legalization: No
Medical: Unclear 
Expunge Criminal Records: Unclear

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump at a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, December 10, 2019. (Matt Smith Photographer/Shutterstock)

President Trump could score an easy campaign victory over his democratic rivals by pushing for federal legalization (or signing an executive order to that effect) but so far he has not done so.

It has been difficult to nail down the president’s stance on legalization. During his 2016 presidential campaign he said states should have the right to legalize cannabis. He also expressed his support for medical marijuana during the 2016 campaign.

At the same time, in 2017 his then White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, stated that “there is still a federal law we need to abide by in terms of when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature.”

Also, in December, 2019, Trump stated that he has the right to ignore a provision that keeps the federal government from implementing federal drug enforcement in state medical canabis laws. 

Trump and his administration have been very vocal in their support of law enforcement and conservative social policies.

Update: In late February 2020, a Trump campaign spokesperson said the president still opposes legalizing cannabis on a federal level.

Elizabeth Warren    

Legalization: Yes
Medical: Yes 
Expunge Criminal Records: Yes 

Elizabeth Warren
Massachusetts Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren at an event in South Carolina, January 20, 2020. (Crush Rush/Shutterstock)

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren represents a state where non-medical recreational marijuana sales were legalized in 2016. In 2017, she was one of only 11 senators to sign a letter to then Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “uphold the DOJ’s existing policy regarding states that have implemented strong and effective regulations for recreational marijuana use.”

Warren was also one of the sponsors of the STATES Act along with Senator Cory Gardner, which “ensures that each state has the right to determine for itself the best approach to mariuana within its borders.”

In a letter to the American Prospect in September, Warren wrote: “I support delisting marijuana as a Schedule I drug to limit federal intervention when states have already legalized marijuana … I also support the full legalization of marijuana and restorative justice for those unjustly jailed for marijuana crimes.” 

Warren’s criminal justice program is devoted to “bold, structural change to reform our criminal justice system.” 

Warren states in the program that “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 a long past time for us to reform our system.”

Regarding the war on drugs, Warren states: “this failure has been particularly harmful for communities of color, and we need a new approach. It starts with legalizing marijuana and erasing past convictions.”

Andrew Yang

Legalization: Yes
Medical: Yes
Expunge Criminal Records: Yes

Andrew Yang
Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang at a campaign event in New Hampshire, January 8, 2020. (Andrew Cline/Shutterstock)

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang supports federal legalization of Marijuana saying that “we need to resolve the ambiguity and legalize marijuana at the federal level. This would improve safety, social equality, and generate tens of billions of dollars in new revenue based on legal cannabis businesses.”

Yang says that unregulated marijuana “leads to safety issues and lack of oversight,” and that the current reality (in which marijuana is legal in some states yet illegal on the federal level) is confusing. 

“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 nonviolent marijuana-related offenses. It’s a safer, less addictive means to manage pain for many Americans,” the candidate states on his website.

(Top photo by “Crush Rush”/Shutterstock )

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