Friday Talking Points -- Marijuana Policy Questions for the Candidates

There was some good news and some bad news on marijuana this week, which got us thinking about how the subject of federal marijuana policy relates to the presidential nomination race.
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WASHINGTON DC APRIL 02: Hundreds of advocates for marijuana legalization rally and smoke pot outside the White House in Washington, D.C. on April 02, 2016. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON DC APRIL 02: Hundreds of advocates for marijuana legalization rally and smoke pot outside the White House in Washington, D.C. on April 02, 2016. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

There was some good news and some bad news on marijuana this week, which got us thinking about how the subject of federal marijuana policy relates to the presidential nomination race. So while we'll take care of the news (good and bad) in the awards section, we're going to also devote the talking points section to a list of questions we would love to hear answered by all the candidates. Obviously, the answers from Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are the most important, since they'd be the only ones who might actually try to improve the current situation, but it really shouldn't excuse the Republicans from having to answer them as well. Rather than just a quick "Do you support medical marijuana?" question, we really think the issue needs to be addressed in a little more depth.

In non-marijuana news, the presidential campaign just keeps chugging along. This week was a good one for the underdogs, as both Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz won big in the Wisconsin primaries. Of course, this sent all the political pundits into a tizzy, all but declaring Donald Trump's campaign dead in the water. They seemed to collectively forget that the next big state to vote is New York, where Trump will quite likely crush the competition (Ted Cruz is already regretting that "New York values" dig he made toward Trump in an earlier debate). But until then, expect lots and lots of rampant speculation about an open Republican convention. Earlier this week, Salon pointed out that things could get quite ugly if the GOP does manage to wrest the nomination away from Trump (which led me to write about how the "days of rage" might actually come to pass). Short answer: Trump followers aren't just going to quietly accept Paul Ryan as the nominee. Far from it.

On the Democratic side of things, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are getting a little more feisty in how they're referring to each other. The media is trying to turn this into some sort of "open warfare," but what is really happening is they are both vying for New York voters. New Yorkers are a pretty brash and outspoken lot, so all we see is the candidates using rhetoric the crowd wants to hear, really. The New York contest is an interesting one because both Democrats can claim "home state" status here -- Bernie was born in New York City, and Hillary was the state's senator for eight years. Hillary has already won the other two states she can claim (Illinois and Arkansas) and Bernie won Vermont, so now New York will get to vote for either a "favorite son" or a "favorite daughter." So far, Hillary has the polling lead, but that could change after next week's debate, so stay tuned!

Hillary tried to stage a photo op to tease Bernie about not knowing how to ride the subway in New York City (Bernie's "you buy a token" was a wee bit out of date), but she kind of blew it when she obviously didn't know how to use the farecard herself. This led to an amusing dig at Hillary from none other than Michele Bachmann.

The other embarrassing news for Hillary this week came from her husband. Bill was interrupted by Black Lives Matter protesters at a campaign event, and he tried to argue them into submission. This didn't work out as well as he might have planned, however. Bill tried to defend his own record as president, which is obviously personal to him, but in doing so he sounded rather dismissive of the opinions he was disagreeing with. This is not exactly helpful to Hillary right now, since any drop in African-American support for her could be disastrous in the next states to hold primaries. We'll have to wait and see just how big an impact Bill's back-and-forth with Black Lives Matter winds up having.

And finally, in the most appropriate inadvertent acronym since George Bush wanted to call his invasion "Operation Iraq Liberation," George Mason University announced last week that it was going to change the name of its law school to the "Antonin Scalia School Of Law." Because ASSOL (or even ASSLAW) is the perfect way to remember Scalia!

Bernie Sanders deserves at least an Honorable Mention for chalking up an impressive 14 percent victory over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin on Tuesday night, which was a much larger margin than anyone was predicting. This continues a winning streak for Bernie, and (importantly, for him) this was the first primary (as opposed to caucus) that Bernie won in that streak. He's now won seven of the last eight contests (six states plus Democrats Abroad), and if he wins again tomorrow night in Wyoming, this will improve to eight out of nine.

[Program Note: For those playing along with our "predict the primaries" series of columns, this counts as my prediction: Bernie will indeed handily win the Wyoming caucuses tomorrow night.]

At the end of the week, Bernie announced he'd be taking a day off the campaign trail to accept an invitation to address the Vatican on income inequality, also a favorite subject of Pope Francis. That's a pretty impressive way to cap off a pretty good week, we have to admit.

But this week the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award goes to eight Democrats in the Senate who sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Agency posing some rather important questions about federal marijuana policy. These senators are: Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, Ron Wyden, Barbara Mikulski, Ed Markey, Barbara Boxer, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand. All of them (except Warren) are also co-sponsors of a bill introduced last year "designed to drastically reduce the federal government's ability to crack down on state-legal medical marijuana programs while also encouraging more research into the substance."

This effort was in the news because the D.E.A. finally responded in a 25-page letter of their own. The D.E.A. revealed that they were going to try (there were some weasel words used) to complete a review of the possibility of rescheduling marijuana on the federal list of controlled substances "in the first half of 2016." This means the law could change as early as this summer. They also revealed that they have already received a recommendation from the F.D.A. on the matter, but they did not reveal what it said.

This is the key issue in ending the federal War On Weed (which I explained in detail yesterday, if anyone's interested). Take out this one stumbling block, and the rest of federal marijuana policy can start to change to a realistic and sane approach, in other words. So it's a big deal.

For a long time, the D.E.A. under the Obama administration refused to face the new reality of states legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana. Finally, to the vast relief of drug policy advocates everywhere, last year Michele Leonhart stepped down from leading the agency. The decision on rescheduling marijuana simply would not have been possible under Leonhart, but there is hope with new leadership that the agency will finally move beyond the worst attitudes of the War On Drugs and start to help craft a new federal legal policy. It's too early to celebrate -- in their letter, the D.E.A. gave absolutely no hint which way it is going to act.

But for spurring this process along, and for writing legislation to end some of the worst excesses from the past, we have to award the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week to the eight senators who are showing real leadership on the issue.

[Congratulate Senator Cory Booker on his Senate contact page, Senator Barbara Boxer on her Senate contact page, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on her Senate contact page, Senator Edward Markey on his Senate contact page, Senator Jeff Merkley on his Senate contact page, Senator Barbara Mikulski on her Senate contact page, Senator Elizabeth Warren on her Senate contact page, and Senator Ron Wyden on his Senate contact page, to let them all know you appreciate their efforts.]

There was a Senate hearing on marijuana this week. It was a complete sham -- one of those hearings where only one viewpoint is even allowed in the room, where all the witnesses are selected so they can echo back the opinions the senators already hold. In this case, the opinion (as espoused by Jeff Sessions): "that good people don't smoke marijuana."

The four witnesses called were: a critic of the Obama marijuana policy, a prosecutor "who led raids on pot farms in California," a state attorney general who had sued Colorado over legalization, and a board member of an organization dedicated to stopping the legalization movement. Pretty fair and balanced, eh?

Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance doesn't think so, and doesn't mince words:

These hearings are a one-sided sham with the deck stacked with witnesses who have a track record of vehemently opposing marijuana legalization. An honest evaluation of marijuana legalization would include the undeniable benefits of legalization, like the massive drop in marijuana arrests, the billions in taxes, and the transition from an underground market to a regulated one.

But, of course, the senators weren't after any sort of honest evaluation -- they just wanted to hear the "Drugs are bad... mmm'kay?" refrain that has been soothing them since the 1980s. Sessions even spoke favorably about Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, to provide a nostalgic glow.

However, we expect this sort of thing from Republicans. They've been making political hay over the Drug War (and over law-and-order issues generally) for decades now. People like Chuck Grassley, who co-chairs the committee, are probably never going to change. They're permanently stuck in the past, where if we just throw another few million people in jail, the problem will be solved!

What we find massively disappointing, though, is to see one of California's own senators enthusiastically joining in. Because Grassley's co-chair is none other than Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is described as being one of "the Senate's most strident anti-drug crusaders," along with Grassley.

DiFi has long been anti-weed. She actually led the effort against the previous legalization ballot measure in her state (Proposition 19, which failed back in 2010). If, as expected, Californians get another chance to vote on legalizing recreational marijuana this year, it wouldn't surprise us in the least to see "vote no" ads featuring DiFi.

Feinstein is fighting a losing battle. History is moving in the exact opposite direction she is heading, in fact. Feinstein and her Republican buddies want to take America backwards, and return to an era of complete denial of reality. For enthusiastically participating in such a sham hearing, and for refusing to allow any witnesses who might have held a different opinion from her own, Dianne Feinstein is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week.

[Contact Senator Dianne Feinstein on her Senate contact page, to let her know what you think of her actions.]

Volume 386 (4/8/16)

If the Drug Enforcement Agency does follow through and issue a decision on rescheduling marijuana by summertime, it almost guarantees it will become a hot topic in the presidential race. Whether the D.E.A. decides to reschedule or not, the incoming president is going to have a big influence on federal marijuana policy for the next four years.

But by summer, we should have a Democratic nominee. So it'll be too late for the issue to mean anything in the nomination race currently underway. So instead of talking points this week designed for Democrats to raise issues effectively, we are going to ask seven questions that we would sincerely like to hear both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton answer. Whenever the subject arises in a question to a candidate, it is often either posed or answered in very general terms ("Do you support legalization?" for instance). We think this is a shame, because there are nuances and technical legalisms that really bear closer examination. If the next president is going to lead on the issue (rather than reluctantly follow the will of the people), they should really have thought about these things, and have answers for what they would do as president. So here are our questions for both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to answer.

What would your administration policy be?

First, a generic question. Depending on the answer to this, some of the other questions may not be necessary.

"By the time you are sworn into office, over 10 states may have legalized recreational use of marijuana for all their adult citizens. However, federal law supercedes all of these new state laws. So far, the Obama administration has taken a somewhat hands-off attitude, but that could change under a new administration. So how would you deal with the new reality of perhaps one-fifth of the United States allowing legal recreational marijuana? As president, how exactly would you change federal law and Justice Department policy?"


The next two questions are really the most important, because they'd have the greatest effect on overall policy.

"Currently, marijuana is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance. This classification means the federal government believes that marijuana is more dangerous than cocaine, PCP, crystal meth, and opium. Richard Nixon's administration made this classification, and it has never changed since. If the D.E.A. refuses to reschedule marijuana this summer, would you guarantee that you would do so as president? Which schedule would you move it to? Schedule II? Schedule III? Or even lower?"

Or deschedule?

The commonsense solution needs to be asked about, as well.

"There is already a federal bureau which has the responsibility of overseeing alcohol and tobacco. Wouldn't it make more sense to completely deschedule marijuana and hand off oversight of marijuana issues to the A.T.F.? Especially considering that the number of states where recreational marijuana is fully legal can only be expected to grow, over time?"

Freedom to travel

Prohibition didn't completely end, but local bans can only go so far.

"When Prohibition ended, some states and counties refused to condone the sale of alcohol. There are still many of these 'dry' counties left, in fact. But a key point is that while it may be illegal to buy alcohol in any given county, it cannot be illegal there to possess or even consume alcohol (in the privacy of one's own home). A person can legally drive through a 'dry' county with a sixpack of beer in the car, and if they stopped at a hotel there they could legally drink that alcohol in their room. Would you support changing federal law so that no state can criminalize either simple possession or private use of marijuana, so that it would be treated the same way that alcohol is now treated under the law?"

Free the doctors!

Don't let candidates get away with just a generic "I support more research" answer, here.

"Currently, anyone applying to conduct marijuana research has to jump through all kinds of legal hoops that other medical researchers do not have to, which wastes an enormous amount of time and effort. Would you support removing all unreasonable barriers to medical marijuana research that still exist? Would you support changing the application process for doctors wanted to conduct research so that it is the same process as for any other drug undergoing study?"

Free the accountants!

This is only going to become a bigger and bigger issue, as more states legalize marijuana.

"Marijuana businesses that are fully in compliance with their state's laws still cannot use banking services that any other business is able to. Bankers are afraid they'll be charged as accessories to drug trafficking, so they refuse to do business with marijuana companies. Would you support changing federal law so that it is clear that banks will not have to worry about criminal charges for conducting business with marijuana companies that follow state law? Also, would you support changing federal tax law so that marijuana businesses could deduct the common business expenses that every other business is allowed to write off on their taxes?"

Free the prisoners!

Obama got this ball rolling, but a lot more needs to be done.

"President Obama has been pardoning or commuting long jail terms for people sentenced under the worst of the War On Drugs 'lock them all up' laws. Would you continue these amnesty efforts, to give relief to prisoners who are serving sentences that they likely would not receive today?"

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