Marijuana activists say it’s time the Democratic Party shows just how far it’s moved away from its antipathy to pot, as 20 of the party’s candidates gather in Miami this week for their first debates of the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Four years ago, during the last round of Democratic primary debates, Hillary Clinton declined to take a position on whether states should be allowed to set their own agendas on use of the drug.
Now, the party’s presidential hopefuls openly discuss their own use and rush to compete with one another on whether to legalize, decriminalize or otherwise welcome marijuana into the mainstream at the national level.
“They’re basically tripping over each other at this point to show just how pro-cannabis they are,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “It’s something that where in the past it may have been a throwaway line when asked on it for politicians — now they’re actively speaking about it, campaigning on it.”
Candidates’ suggestions range from delisting marijuana from the federal government’s list of Schedule I banned substances, where it sits alongside the likes of heroin and LSD, to expunging marijuana-related arrests and convictions from people’s criminal histories.
“It’s 2019. It’s time to legalize marijuana nationwide. As president, I’ll get it done,” Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York said in a recent Medium post.
Ms. Gillibrand, with Sens. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, Kamala D. Harris of California, Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, are original co-sponsors of legislation Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey introduced this year that would de-schedule the drug and expunge federal convictions for use.
Mr. Booker, a major advocate for criminal justice in general, said his marijuana policy is a part of that.
If elected president, he said, he would start the executive clemency process for up to about 20,000 “nonviolent drug offenders,” many of whom would be serving time for “primarily marijuana-related offenses.”
“Granting clemency won’t repair all the damage that has been done by the war on drugs and our broken criminal justice system, but it will help our country confront this injustice and begin to heal,” he said.
Ten states allow recreational use of the drug, and most states have legalized it for medicinal purposes.
Polling shows the public is increasingly on board, creating space for a robust discussion about how far the federal government should go.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat whose state was one of the first to legalize recreational use of marijuana, boasts that it has “the best weed in the United States of America.”
In Colorado, the other early state, John Hickenlooper opposed the 2012 legalization ballot initiative as governor. Now, as a Democratic presidential candidate, he says his state’s experience has been positive.
“We haven’t seen a spike in any consumption except among senior citizens. You can make your own conclusions from that,” he said.
If he is elected president, he said, he wouldn’t want to dictate a policy to states still working through how to proceed.
“But certainly, the federal government needs to create a … lean, regulatory framework so that this social experiment can proceed and we can make sure that as we gather more data, it really is safe and not having unintended consequences,” he said.
Other candidates figure their personal stories can help them with voters.
Ms. Harris, a former state prosecutor and attorney general in California, talked about her own experience smoking marijuana in college. It was a stark contrast from the 1992 campaign, when Bill Clinton maintained that he experimented with marijuana but “didn’t inhale.”
“I think it gives a lot of people joy, and we need more joy,” the California Democrat told the “Breakfast Club” radio show.
The issue is so mainstream that some Democrats argue mere legalization isn’t enough. They want to encourage banks to offer access to services for cannabis-based businesses because the industry can’t grow without lines of credit.
Four sitting House members running for president — Reps. Eric Swalwell of California, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Tim Ryan of Ohio and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts — are backing legislation to remove barriers to banking access. Most of the senators running for president have signed on to the version in their chamber.
Ms. Gabbard is the lead sponsor of a separate bill to remove marijuana from the Schedule I list of controlled substances, and Mr. Moulton helped roll out a package of bills last month intended to promote the use of cannabis as an alternative medical treatment for veterans.
With support from lawmakers such as Ms. Gabbard and Mr. Moulton, the Democrat-controlled House voted 267-165 last week on a bill to prohibit the Justice Department from interfering with state-enacted laws legalizing marijuana for recreational or medical use.
“It is very much a changing environment that I think the presidential candidates are all very keen to,” said Steven Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “Even if they might not be fully in the legalization camp, they are certainly aware that they have to have an answer.”
The renewed attention has given activists hope that it will be a topic for discussion at the presidential debates.
If so, they might see some fireworks from Democratic candidates who are not as outspoken on the broader push for legalization.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden said while campaigning in New Hampshire that “nobody should be in jail for smoking marijuana,” but he has signaled opposition in the past to broad legalization.
His campaign has indicated that he supports removing marijuana from the Schedule I list of controlled substances and letting states make their own choices on legalization, but did not respond to specific questions about where the candidate stands.
“Joe Biden’s somebody who everyone knows is anti-legalization,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “I think someone like Joe Biden can talk about social justice and argue for decriminalization while drawing a line in the sand on legalization. And I think that’s what he’s doing. And I think that’s actually pretty smart.”
Others have said they support states’ rights to set their own rules but have been less outspoken about legalizing marijuana at the federal level.
Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland said the federal government is hindering progress by keeping marijuana on the Schedule I list of banned substances.
He said at a CNN town hall in March that he wants to “get marijuana out of the shadows and get it into a market where it could be regulated, where we can make sure it’s labeled and distributed appropriately, where we can tax it.”
Mr. Sabet said the issue is fun to talk about but is not a motivator to vote and isn’t necessarily the political winner other candidates might think.
“It will take one parent of a kid who started with marijuana and went on to heroin to show up at a town hall and call Gillibrand or Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders out on their position,” he said. “And that won’t be a good look for that candidate.”
• David Sherfinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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