The relationship between marijuana and the highest office in the U.S. is an interesting one.
From the rumors of John F. Kennedy having smoked three joints in the White House and Bill Clinton's unconvincing admission that he “didn't inhale,” to George W. Bush telling Jay Leno that he “might've smoked something,” and incredible photos of a young Barack Obama smoking weed, there seems to be somewhat of an inconsistency of what a president's relationship to cannabis should be.
But that's starting to look different. Marijuana legalization has been sweeping through the United States, a couple of states at a time, leading some candidates to become more vocal about their support of marijuana's place in modern medicine and American culture.
And the majority of Americans, two-thirds, believe it's time to legalize marijuana, too. It has slowly, yet suddenly, become the consensus issue in which most Democrats can agree: the harm caused by the War on Drugs has continued for too long and the legalization of marijuana is long overdue.
And while not every candidate has the same plan or fully believes that marijuana should be fully accessible to all Americans, many of them have changed their views and have campaigned on policies that may change the course of cannabis for decades to come.
Here is a quick breakdown of the candidates and their views on weed:
When it comes to weed, Joe Biden remains an outlier. While many of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls have incorporated some form of marijuana legalization into their policy plans and have stumped for cannabis on the campaign trail, the 76-year-old former Vice President has been hesitant to commit to legalization.
Along with being out of step with two-thirds of Americans, Biden still believes that marijuana may be a “gateway drug,” and suggests that more research needs to be done to disprove the notion that cannabis use can lead to more dangerous substances.
It’s 2019 & Joe Biden just said marijuana might be a gateway drug:
“There’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug. It’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally.”
— Tom Angell 🌳📰 (@tomangell) November 17, 2019
“The truth of the matter is, there's not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” Biden said at a Las Vegas town hall on Nov. 16, 2019. “It's a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally. I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it.”
According to Washington Post's reporting, the audience groaned at Biden's comment, and he drew criticism from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. Cannabis policy journalist Tom Angell pointed out that Biden made similar comments in 2010 about marijuana being a gateway drug. Biden also said “I think it would be a mistake to legalize.”
Still, Biden claims to support removing criminal penalties for non-violent marijuana offenses and to release and expunge the record of those who have been jailed. Additionally, in his Las Vegas town hall, he said he supports medical marijuana and making cannabis a Schedule III drug, per Tom Angell's Forbes column.
Last month, at 4:20 p.m. Eastern Time, Sen. Bernie Sanders released a plan to legalize marijuana. The ambitious plan, in which he would legalize marijuana through executive action within 100 days of his presidency, drew a lot of media attention.
When we said four years ago that we needed to legalize marijuana, it was considered a "radical" idea.
Today, 11 states plus DC have legalized it. Not so radical anymore.
When we're in the White House we will do so nationwide.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) October 24, 2019
Sanders is making good on his long history of supporting policies that decriminalize and reschedule cannabis by now vowing to legalize it soon after he takes office should he win the election. Sanders' plan includes signing an executive order directing the attorney general to declassify marijuana, pushing congress to pass policy that would “ensure permanent legalization of marijuana,” directing the expungement of past marijuana-related convictions, using revenue to reinvest in communities most harmed by the War on Drugs, and put in restrictions to prevent the marijuana industry from turning into the next “Big Tobacco.”
Too many lives were ruined due to the disastrous criminalization of marijuana. Today I am releasing my plan to:
✅ Legalize marijuana with executive action
✅ Expunge past marijuana convictions
✅ Invest in communities most affected by the War on Drugs https://t.co/0xQSHn6F3U
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) October 24, 2019
Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren too vowed to legalize marijuana through executive action. In response to the Prospect, Warren wrote “I support delisting marijuana as a Schedule I drug to limit federal intervention when states have already legalized marijuana … I also support the full legalization of marijuana and restorative justice for those unjustly jailed for marijuana crimes.”
Along with Sanders, Warren has committed further than other candidates by vowing to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substance list through her administration rather than depend on the political maneuvering in Congress. Warren, along with being a continuous critic of Wall Street and Big Tech, has been critical of Trump's lack of commitment to protecting states that have legalized the use of cannabis. She filed a bill that would ensure that the federal government would not interfere with marijuana-legal states.
It’s time to reform American’s outdated marijuana policies. Watch live as @SenCoryGarder and I discuss our new legislation that would let states, territories, & tribes decide for themselves how best to regulate marijuana – without federal interference. https://t.co/BVcvxomhld
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) June 7, 2018
Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris joined the presidential race and bid for the party's nomination on Jan. 27, announcing her run on ABC's “Good Morning America.” Harris is the second African-American woman to serve in the Senate, where she's been a supporter of policies such as expanded health-care access, affordable housing, and marijuana legalization and decriminalization.
Decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level isn’t just a smart thing to do —it’s the right thing to do. We can’t keep repeating the same mistakes of the past. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) December 11, 2018
But much of the conversation surrounding Harris has been centered on her prosecutorial record during her time as California Attorney General and San Francisco District Attorney in which she jailed marijuana offenders. During the second round of Democratic debates, Sen. Tulsi Gabbard aimed for Harris' record: “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
Gabbard was referring to Harris involvement in a cannabis-related controversy, referred to as “Reefergater” or “SnoopGate” in social media. During a Feb. 11, 2019, appearance on “The Breakfast Club” radio program, her comments were interpreted to mean she smoked cannabis during college while listening to the music of Snoop Dogg and 2Pac, to which social media users pointed out that both artists hadn't released music by the time Harris had graduated from college. Both “The Breakfast Club” hosts defended Harris, and Vice's senior politics editor, Harry Cheadle, dismissed the scandal as the “the dumbest story of the year.”
When Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker jumped into the 2020 presidential race on Feb. 1, he did so by putting criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization at the forefront, addressing both issues in his first radio interview after announcing that he would run for president.
In February 2019, Booker reintroduced a bill that would legalize marijuana nationwide shortly after announcing his presidential run. The bill would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substance Act, as well as expunge the records of marijuana-related offenses and create a $500 million annual fund to repair communities damaged by the War on Drugs. Since, the legislation has been supported by Sens. Sanders, Harris, and Warren. In a March 2019 town hall, Booker also said he would consider mass commutations and pardons of federal marijuana offenses should he take office.
Cory Booker says he "absolutely” would consider mass commutations and pardons for federal marijuana offenses if he were to become president. #BookerTownHall https://t.co/8If7Lkd89C pic.twitter.com/DGyHbMtlwb
— CNN (@CNN) March 28, 2019
Democratic Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined the crowded Democratic field on Feb. 10. The longtime senator's reputation is one of a tough pragmatist who wins her elections by huge margins, according to Vox.com. Her candidacy has kicked off with calls for regulating the technology sector and marijuana legalization.
UPDATE from @amyklobuchar: “I support the legalization of marijuana and believe that states should have the right to determine the best approach to marijuana within their borders.” https://t.co/MxAi9XOUwz
— Jacqueline Alemany (@JaxAlemany) February 22, 2019
Unlike Harris and Sanders, Klobuchar hasn't signed onto Booker's Marijuana Justice Act. Instead, she has co-sponsored the States Act, legislation that allows states to set their marijuana policies and protects them from federal punishment.
Pete Buttigieg has been seen as one of the potential leaders of the next generation of Democrats. The Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is unique in the race: he's openly gay, the only millennial, and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He's also admitted to using marijuana “a handful of times” to reporters after touring a dispensary in Las Vegas.
On the campaign trail, Buttigieg has acknowledged the failures of the War on Drugs and the need to legalize cannabis. In July 2019, he released a plan aimed to reverse the harm done by the criminal justice system and invest in the Black community.
“We will, on the federal level, eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses and apply these reductions retroactively, legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions,” the plan states.
Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur from New York City who has gained significant momentum despite never serving in public office or having a household name. Which his background in both startups and nonprofits, Yang has made universal basic income his signature policy, along with a focus on Medicare for All. Along with the majority of Democratic candidates, Yang supports the federal legalization of marijuana and the expungement of non-violent marijuana offenses.
“We need to decriminalize opiates for personal use,” Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang says. “I’m also for the legalization of cannabis” https://t.co/bW5PJhIGsH #YangTownHall pic.twitter.com/Z6jJQbfGKD
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) April 15, 2019
During an appearance on The Breakfast Club in March 2019, Yang said “On April 20, 2021, I'm going to pardon everyone who's in prison for a non-violent drug offense because it makes no sense to have people in jail for stuff that's legal in some parts of the country.”
During a campaign stop in Portland, he signed a bong.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has supported marijuana reform throughout her career in congress. Along with being on the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Gabbard, along with Rep. Don Young, introduced two bipartisan marijuana bills: The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2019 and The Marijuana Data Collection Act of 2019.
Both have been supported by NORML, Minority Cannabis Industry Association, the Drug Policy Alliance, the National Cannabis Industry Association, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. The bills aim to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substance list, allowing states to regulate marijuana without federal interference, and study the effects of marijuana programs on state revenues, public health, substance abuse, criminal justice, and employment.
We are losing 115 people every day to opioid overdoses. There is an obvious answer: ending federal marijuana prohibition can help fix our broken criminal justice system, and help save the lives of those who are suffering from opioid addiction. https://t.co/Zp2m10immK
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) April 24, 2018
Tom Steyer is a billionaire philanthropist and former hedge fund manager who entered the race in August 2019. He's donated millions to left causes and the push to impeach President Trump, but his views on marijuana legalization have yet to be determined. He did comment that marijuana prohibition prevents him from financing businesses in the cannabis industry. While he hasn't committed to legalizing cannabis through executive action or policy, he has advocated for Americans to have the ability to enact reform through an annual national referendum, forcing lawmakers to legislate the most popular policies, such as marijuana legalization.
A national referendum would empower the American people to pass popular reforms without relying on Congress to take action. pic.twitter.com/076sOfFqg4
— Tom Steyer (@TomSteyer) September 14, 2019
When Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development Secretary, entered the race for the Democratic nomination back in January 2019, he didn't have a robust record on cannabis policy. Since, like many of his competitors, he has been more vocal about the need to legalize marijuana and reverse the harm done by the War on Drugs.
Legalize it. Then expunge the records of folks who are in prison for marijuana use. #CastroTownHall
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) April 12, 2019
In October 2019, he released a criminal justice plan that called for the legalization of marijuana, expungement of prior cannabis convictions, and the investment in communities most affected by prohibition.
My #FirstChance Plan:
✔️Justice for Communities of Color
✔️End Police Violence
✔️Legalize Marijuana, Expunge Records
✔️Abolish the Death Penalty
✔️Fair Trials for All
✔️Heal The Wounds of Mass Incarceration https://t.co/dvXzJekckt
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) October 23, 2019
Featured image from Shutterstock.
This article first published Feb. 25, 2019. It has been updated on Nov. 18, 2019, to include the candidates who will participate in the Nov. 20 Democratic Presidential debate.