If you’re counting down the 2020 presidential election, today marks an important milestone on the campaign trail, with 420 days left until it’s time to cast your ballot. And if, like many Americans, you’re making marijuana policy reform a priority next year, as in finally making marijuana legal across the United States, you probably want to know where each presidential candidate stands on the issue of cannabis.
Under pressure from voters and progressive rivals with strong records of supporting marijuana legalization, many Democratic presidential candidates are revising their past views on cannabis. Some are evolving so quickly it can be tough to keep up. So with 420 days left until the 2020 presidential election, here’s a snapshot of where all the top contenders currently stand.
Cannabis is a Defining Issue for Democratic Presidential Candidates
On the issue of cannabis reform, the Democratic party has moved decisively to the left, with most top candidates calling for full nationwide legalization. But there are some holdouts who favor decriminalization over legalization, and a few who have been relatively quiet on the cannabis question.
Bernie Sanders: Bernie is 420’s Best Friend
Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, has the most progressive and pro-cannabis presidential platform of any of the 2020 candidates. Sanders, a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, wants to legalize marijuana nationwide. He wants to erase marijuana convictions. And he wants cannabis businesses to be able to finally work with federally-insured banks.
Sen. Sanders, indisputably one of the top three contenders for the Democratic nomination for president, even has an A+ rating from NORML, going back to 2015. For years, Sanders has sponsored a number of cannabis reform bills, including the Marijuana Justice Act, during his tenure in the Senate.
Sanders’ 420-friendly campaign platform isn’t just about weed. His strong stance on cannabis legalization is part of a broader criminal justice reform plan to end the war on drugs, invest in drug treatment centers and support medical cannabis research. And yes, Sanders has inhaled.
Elizabeth Warren: Evolving on Marijuana
In the press, on social media and in her public appearances, Massachusetts Senator and 2020 Democratic frontrunner Elizabeth Warren has stated she supports cannabis legalization. Some of her strongest comments in favor of legalizing cannabis nationwide came in April during a CNN town hall.
But on Warren’s campaign website, the word “marijuana” appears only once, in a paragraph on criminal justice reform. Criminal justice reform “means comprehensive sentencing reform and rewriting our laws to decriminalize marijuana,” Warren’s website reads. Legalization and decriminalization are two completely different policies, and it’s so far unclear which approach a President Warren would adopt.
Under pressure from progressive rivals and a voter base largely in favor of legal cannabis, Warren has tried to make her past record on marijuana reform look stronger than it is. Prior to 2016, Warren opposed general legalization and hesitantly expressed openness to legal medical cannabis. Recently, however, her views on cannabis seem to have shifted. But Warren doesn’t have the record or the consistency that Sanders has on the marijuana issue, despite her public statements.
Joe Biden: Drug War Architect
Joe Biden, whom many polls indicate is leading the pack of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, has carved out a unique position on cannabis. According to Biden’s official campaign website, his platform would decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions. Biden’s platform also calls for legalizing cannabis for medical purposes and giving states leeway to set their own laws regarding recreational use. Biden would also reclassify cannabis as a Schedule II controlled substance, which would make it much easier for researchers to study.
Despite these views, however, marijuana policy reform advocates aren’t lining up behind Biden. And they’re pointing to his record as the reason why not. For decades, Biden has stood sharply opposed to marijuana legalization. He once tried to pass a bill criminalizing raves. Marijuana policy experts also broadly recognize Biden as the architect of the modern war on drugs. Some even consider Biden more out of step on cannabis than President Trump.
Kamala Harris: From Cop to Marijuana Justice Co-Sponsor
In recent years, Kamala Harris’ stance on marijuana has evolved significantly. In fact, it was as recently as 2018 that the U.S. Senator from California came out in favor of federal cannabis legalization and comprehensive expungement. Most recently, Harris signed on to the MORE Act, a huge bill that would legalize marijuana and allocate federal funds to support entrepreneurs of color in the cannabis industry.
But like other 2020 presidential hopefuls, Harris has been pushed left from rivals with more progressive platforms. And her record on cannabis is anything but 420-friendly. In fact, that record came under attack in a viral moment from the first debate when Tulsi Gabbard zoomed in on the thousands of people Harris locked up for minor cannabis offenses when she was California attorney general. In the past, Harris has adopted much of the lock-em-up mentality of the war on drugs. Now, as a candidate for president, her views have completely reversed.
Pete Buttigieg: Banned Synthetic Cannabinoids
Pete Buttigieg is mayor of South Bend, Indiana and polling just behind Harris at about 5 percent among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. But unlike many of his rivals in the field, Buttigieg has yet to outline a clear stance on cannabis. Mayor Pete likes to tell a story about a close call with police when he was smoking a joint during his Harvard days, and he connects that tale to statements about privilege and racial disparities in drug enforcement.
Indeed, Buttigieg views reforming failed drug policies as a social justice issue. His public statements and social media posts all appear to support marijuana reform, including legalization. But in terms of direct policy proposals, Buttigieg comes up empty, both as a mayor and a presidential candidate. Buttigieg’s campaign website doesn’t mention marijuana. And as South Bend mayor, he signed no legislation dealing with cannabis (but he did sign a bill banning the sale of synthetic cannabinoids).
Andrew Yang: “I Don’t Love Marijuana”
Andrew Yang has distinguished his campaign platform with a call for universal basic income. But his views on cannabis line up with other candidates who want to end the war on drugs and legalize cannabis. Yang’s official campaign website proposes a three-point marijuana reform policy package.
First, Yang says he will support the full legalization of marijuana at the federal level and remove it from the controlled substances list. Second, Yang’s platform calls for expunging federal marijuana use or possession offenses. And third, Yang wants to identify non-violent drug offenders for probation and even early release.
Adopting a more personal note, Yang says he doesn’t love marijuana and prefers people don’t use it heavily. But he still thinks the current criminalization of cannabis is “stupid and racist” and believes the only path is to proceed with full legalization.
Cory Booker: All About Restorative Justice
Since 2017, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has been the chief proponent of the Marijuana Justice Act, a comprehensive reform bill that would legalize cannabis nationwide, expunge criminal records and invest in communities impacted most by the war on drugs. In his public appearances, Booker emphasizes the need not just to legalize cannabis but to also repair and rebuild the damage caused by criminalizing it.
But on Cory Booker’s official 2020 campaign website, you won’t find any mention of legalizing marijuana. Instead, Booker’s criminal justice platform calls for decriminalizing marijuana, expunging records and restoring justice to individuals and communities that have been devastated by the drug war. Booker hasn’t clearly addressed the discrepancy between his public support for legalization and his website’s call for decriminalization. In the past, when Booker hasn’t supported marijuana bills, it has been because they haven’t been strong enough on restorative justice.
Beto O’Rourke: Long-Time Legalization Supporter
2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke‘s official campaign platform calls for the federal government to end its prohibition on cannabis. But it doesn’t clarify whether that prohibition should end with decriminalization or full legalization. In an email sent to supporters of his 2020 presidential bid, however, O’Rourke called for federal cannabis legalization as part of a package of sweeping criminal justice reforms.
Like other justice Democrats, O’Rourke is framing marijuana legalization as a way to reduce mass incarceration. It’s a way of presenting the issue that connected strongly with Texas voters, winning O’Rourke election to El Paso City Council and bringing him close to flipping Ted Cruz’ senate seat blue. O’Rourke has a record of consistently supporting progressive drug policy and cannabis legalization.
Julián Castro: Legalize Then Expunge
On the campaign trail, Julián Castro has consistently expressed support for progressive marijuana through the lens of criminal justice reform. Instead of drawing attention to legalization alone, Castro has stressed the need for criminal record expungement and responsible regulation. On other occasions, Castro has been more direct, tweeting after one town hall “Legalize it. Then expunge the records of folks who are in prison for marijuana use.” Typically, expungements apply to people who have already served their sentences, and Castro hasn’t clarified whether he supports amnesty for marijuana offenses or simply misspoke.
Despite public statements and social media posts calling for legalization, Castro’s official campaign website doesn’t outline a definite stance on cannabis policy. So it’s unclear exactly what Castro would pursue at the federal level as president.
Castro has just one federal drug policy action on his record. In 2014, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President Barack Obama, Castro released a memo reminding owners of federal housing facilities that they are required to deny entry to anyone using marijuana, even if they do so legally under state law, such as for medical reasons.
420 Days Until the Most Important Vote of 2020
United States voters’ growing consensus on the issue of marijuana legalization means cannabis could be a make or break issue for the 2020 primaries. Marijuana policy is front and center in the national conversation, and shifts in federal drug laws will shape and define the legal cannabis industry and our criminal justice system for years to come.