The Candidates' Positions On Marijuana Policy

While mostly ignored by the media (and almost completely ignored in the debates), the issue is going to become a lot more important in the general election, as many states will have recreational legalization ballot initiatives to vote on.
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Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks during a campaign rally in Erie, Pa., Tuesday, April 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks during a campaign rally in Erie, Pa., Tuesday, April 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Seeing as how it is 4/20, I thought today would be a good day to take a look at how all the remaining presidential candidates stand on the issue of marijuana policy. While mostly ignored by the media (and almost completely ignored in the debates), the issue is going to become a lot more important in the general election, as many states will have recreational legalization ballot initiatives to vote on. The issue is at least addressed by both Democrats on their campaign websites, but none of the Republicans have a single word about marijuana policy on theirs. This is likely a mistake on their part, since pro-marijuana voters are not as partisan as you might think -- the issue cuts across party lines in a way that few other contentious issues do.

The tide is shifting so fast on the public's view of marijuana that America could reach a real tipping point on the legalization debate during the next president's term in office. So let's take a look at what each of the candidates have had to say about the federal marijuana policies they would pursue as president.

Hillary Clinton

Both Democratic candidates, to their credit, have comprehensive plans to overhaul the failed federal War On Drugs. In both cases, this includes strong support for sentencing reform, treatment programs, drug courts, and other criminal justice reforms. Check out both campaign websites for much more detailed information on the candidate's overall plans to reverse the excesses of the War On Drugs.

Hillary Clinton is specific about some non-marijuana War On Drugs policies that she would reform, most notably her call to get rid of the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. This has been a big problem (and has given millions longer sentences as a result), so it's good to see her address it.

Hillary Clinton has three bullet points on her campaign website specifically dealing with marijuana (emphasis in original):

  • Focus federal enforcement resources on violent crime, not simple marijuana possession. Marijuana arrests, including for simple possession, account for a huge number of drug arrests. Further, significant racial disparities exist in marijuana enforcement, with black men significantly more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, even though usage rates are similar. Hillary believes we need an approach to marijuana that includes:
  • Allowing states that have enacted marijuana laws to act as laboratories of democracy, as long as they adhere to certain federal priorities such as not selling to minors, preventing intoxicated driving, and keeping organized crime out of the industry.
  • Rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance. Hillary supports medical marijuana and would reschedule marijuana to advance research into its health benefits.

Hillary's approach, not surprisingly, is an incremental one. Dial back federal law enforcement efforts, move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II to remove barriers to medical research, and continue to allow the states which have legalized recreational marijuana (four currently, but this number could grow in November's election) to continue their legal experiment without overbearing federal involvement. Overall, Hillary is for continuing the policies of Barack Obama and for generally taking a "wait and see" approach to what the individual states are doing.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders agrees with Clinton on the need for a comprehensive approach to winding down the War On Drugs, but Bernie is (unsurprisingly) willing to go further than Clinton in how he would achieve his goals.

Bernie is much more expressive on his campaign webpage (as he has been on the stump) on why this is a moral issue:

Millions of lives have been destroyed because people are in jail for nonviolent crimes. For decades, we have been engaged in a failed "War on Drugs" with racially-biased mandatory minimums that punish people of color unfairly. It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy. This must change.

He also raises specific points that Clinton doesn't mention:

In many cities all over our country, the incentives for policing are upside down. Departments are bringing in substantial sums of revenue by seizing the personal property of people who are suspected of criminal involvement. So-called civil asset forfeiture laws allow police to take property from people even before they are charged with a crime, much less convicted of one. Even worse, the system works in a way that makes it very difficult and expensive for an innocent person to get his or her property back. We must end programs that actually reward officials for seizing assets without a criminal conviction or other lawful mandate. Departments and officers should not profit off of such seizures.

Bernie also has three bullet points that specifically deal with marijuana policy on his website:

  • We need to turn back from the failed "War on Drugs" and eliminate mandatory minimums which result in sentencing disparities between black and white people.
  • We need to take marijuana off the federal government's list of outlawed drugs.
  • We need to allow people in states which legalize marijuana to be able to fully participate in the banking system and not be subject to federal prosecution for using pot.

Bernie Sanders would not only continue the Obama policies, he would make significant improvements, including reforming the banking laws to allow marijuana businesses to conduct their financial affairs exactly the same as every other legal business in the country. And most significantly, Sanders would deschedule marijuana instead of merely rescheduling it. This is now the ultimate goal of marijuana activists, and would obviously happen fastest if Sanders wins the presidency.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz, quite surprisingly, actually has the best position on marijuana policy of the remaining Republican candidates. He has stated his position numerous times, and he not only takes a "hands off" approach to state legalization laws, but he fits it nicely into the whole conservative "states' rights" argument. This is an intellectually honest way of looking at the issue for a Republican, it bears mentioning.

Here is Cruz, from an interview earlier this month (I should mention that quotes for Ted Cruz and John Kasich come from a wonderful page at the Marijuana Policy Project where all the candidates' views are presented and graded):

I think on the question of marijuana legalization, we should leave it to the states. If it were me personally, voting on it in the state of Texas, I would vote against it. The people of Colorado have made a different decision. I respect that decision. And actually, it is an opportunity for the rest of the country to see what happens here in Colorado, what happens in Washington state, see the states implement the policies, and if it works well, other states may choose to follow. If it doesn't work well other states may choose not to follow.

As I said, this is standard conservative dogma on states' rights. Cruz is always very careful to note his own personal position on the issue ("I would vote against it"), but also that his position shouldn't necessarily be the position everywhere (or for the federal government). That is a more progressive position than most Republicans manage to take on the issue. Cruz would essentially be continuing the Obama "hands off" approach to the states which do legalize.

John Kasich

John Kasich -- again, surprisingly, considering his whole "compassionate conservatism" image -- has the harshest views towards marijuana of any of the Republican candidates. He has waffled on supporting even medical marijuana, going from being "totally opposed" to "I think we can look at it."

But even while he struggles to sound reasonable, it's pretty easy to see Kasich's real beliefs are pretty unchanged from the "drug warrior" days. Here is Kasich's answer to a direct question about states legalizing:

The people in those states have voted that way. The federal government has decided to kind of look the other way. I feel very strongly in my state, I'm going to oppose, and they're going to put something on the ballot to legalize drugs. I'm totally opposed to it, because it is a scourge in this country. Now I would have to give it thought as to, I probably would not from the standpoint that the states have gone forward to prove that. I haven't thought about this. I'd have to give it a little thought..... In my state and across this country, if I happened to be president, I would lead a significant campaign down at the grassroots level to stomp these drugs out of our country.

Kasich goes from being strongly against the idea in Ohio to being totally incoherent to ending with a golden oldie about stomping out drugs. Seriously, what does: "I would have to give it thought as to, I probably would not from the standpoint that the states have gone forward to prove that" even mean?

Kasich sounds like a Republican politician caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he knows that four states have already legalized it (and whatever happened to supporting states' rights?), but on the other hand, he still seems stuck in the 1980s rhetoric about how drugs is a solvable problem that can easily be stomped out. Many politicians -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- are having to evolve their positions on marijuana, and some are doing so a little faster than others. But President Kasich would obviously not be a big supporter of reforming any federal laws at all, that seems obvious.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump's position is almost as incoherent as Kasich's. The only real difference is that Trump is moving from the opposite direction on the issue. Back in the 1990s, Trump was in favor of legalizing all drugs. Now that he's running for president, he's against marijuana. At least, recreational marijuana. Maybe. Or maybe not. Here is Trump refusing to take Bill O'Reilly's bait (O'Reilly's position is that medical benefits of marijuana don't exist) from an article in High Times magazine:

Trump, speaking to Bill O'Reilly on Fox News this week, was asked about his position on marijuana legalization in Colorado. After expressing some concern over the health effects of marijuana, he was pressed by O'Reilly about what he would do to stop it. Trump then confessed that "I would, I would really want to think about that one Bill, because in some ways, I think it's good and in other ways, it's bad."

It's hard to know exactly where Trump stands, because he is the master of the non-answer on many policy questions. But Trump is an avid supporter of the concept of medical marijuana, answering in the same O'Reilly interview: "I know people that have serious problems... and... it really, really does help them."

Trump would likely continue the Obama approach to states with medical marijuana laws, and he might even be convinced to reschedule marijuana to speed up the process of medical research, since he so personally knows it can do good. What he would do on recreational marijuana is really anyone's guess, but he certainly seems to be open to convincing ("in some ways, I think it's good") to let the states go their own way on the issue.

If Hillary Clinton eventually faces off with Donald Trump, it will be very interesting to see how they both refine their position on marijuana policy. The media has (so far) been largely ignoring the issue, but if (as expected) citizen ballot initiatives appear on between five and ten states this election cycle, the issue will become a lot more prominent. That's good, because the next president may oversee a dramatic shift in federal drug policy on marijuana, so asking them where they stand on all the specifics is important.

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