Trump, Clinton, and Cannabis: It's not what you think

19 October 2016

When alleged shenanigans at the DNC helped knock Bernie Sanders out of the presidential race and seal the nomination for Hillary Clinton, many people in the cannabis industry quickly resigned themselves to the inevitability of either Trump or Clinton. Given those options, industry support naturally shifted to Hillary, almost as if on automatic pilot.

But Hillary Clinton is no Bernie Sanders, and cannabis advocates owe themselves an objective comparison of Clinton vs. Trump on marijuana policy. As Founder John Adams once wrote, "facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." So, no matter whom you plan to vote for, vote with your eyes wide open and set your expectations accordingly.

First, let's take a look at Trump. As background, it's important to note that he doesn't drink, smoke, or use any drugs, owing to the death of his brother to alcoholism. This means that if Trump were to show any support at all for cannabis, it would be for either philosophic or pragmatic reasons, not personal ones. Historically, he openly opposed the War on Drugs. "We're losing badly the war on drugs," Trump said in a 1990 interview with the Miami Herald. "You have to legalize drugs to win that war." Unfortunately, once he decided to run for office he started sounding a lot more like a politician. "I said it's something that should be studied and maybe should continue to be studied," he said about federal legalization, "but it's not something I'd be willing to do right now. I think it's something that I've always said maybe it has to be looked at." So he's softened his federal legalization stance and replaced it with non-committal rhetoric, presumably so as to avoid upsetting the Republican base. Not exactly idealism here.

As for legalization at a state-level, though, Trump is pretty solid. He has repeatedly said he supports medical marijuana "100 percent" and has talked about knowing people who need it for medical reasons. On the issue of adult use, although he views it as "bad," his position on states rights saves him from federal action: "I really believe we should leave it up to the states," he says. He has said this repeatedly and consistently, and he has made no mention of moving cannabis to Schedule II (more on that below), which means that the cannabis industry could probably expect the status quo if Trump were elected.

Unlike Trump, Clinton has been historically opposed to legalization. When asked about legalization in 2011, she said, "I don't think that will is not likely to work. There is just too much money in it, and I don't think that—you can legalize small amounts for possession, but those who are making so much money selling, they have to be stopped." But like Trump, Clinton has changed her public position recently, describing her new stance with what she called, "radical candor." She now says she wants to "wait and see" how legalization plays out in Washington and Colorado, and make marijuana available to people with "extreme conditions." This alone sews seeds of doubt about her sincerity, but the more damning evidence against her comes in the form of a recently leaked speech she gave to Wall Street in March 2014. In it, Clinton told the private group of wealthy donors that she would oppose legalization "in all senses of the word." It would appear that by "radical candor," Clinton means that she is anti-cannabis, but when asked publicly chooses vaguely worded platitudes to placate voters.

The hidden risk with Clinton is her intention to move cannabis to Schedule II. Currently, the Drug Enforcement Agency lists cannabis as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it is considered highly addictive with absolutely no medicinal value. This is a ridiculous stance, of course, but bureaucracy does what bureaucracy wants. While cannabis is on Schedule I and states pass their own legislation, Congress has essentially suspended DEA enforcement against individuals who are following state laws. But Clinton's campaign, possibly in an attempt to appease uninformed cannabis advocates, recently announced that she would "build on the important steps announced today by rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance."

That might sound great, but like many political proposals it's a wolf in sheep's clothing. Moving cannabis to Schedule II (rather than de-scheduling it, as most in the industry advocate), allows big pharmaceutical companies to enter the cannabis industry at an advantage over current participants. That's great for them, and presumably unrelated to the massive donations Hillary's camp has received from the pharmaceutical industry, but what does it mean for everyone else? While the Clinton campaign did say that she would allow states like Colorado to, "continue to serve as laboratories of democracy," how the Schedule II law would be enforced is not clear. At the very least, putting cannabis on Schedule II means that companies with huge budgets capable of dealing with onerous Schedule II regulation would be able to research and sell cannabis across state lines. That nascent cannabis startup you read about last week? Not so much.

The sad truth is that neither side is likely to de-schedule cannabis and open the industry up in the way most advocates want. Assuming that once in office each candidate would enact policy consistent with recent proclamations (admittedly a stretch when contemplating the actions of politicians), Trump represents status quo for the cannabis industry. Clinton, on the other hand, is a bigger risk. She'll certainly disrupt the industry if she fulfills her Schedule II promise, it just may not be the kind of disruption we're all hoping for.

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