From 420 to 2020: Marijuana policy and the upcoming election

By: Kiley Roach

As primary and caucus season inches closer, more and more candidates are establishing exploratory committees and formally declaring that they plan to make a presidential bid in 2020. As more candidates announce, the issues that will define the central debate topics for Democrats become clearer. As of now, a few issues might be health care reform, immigration, gun violence, education policy, and addressing climate change. One issue that has tended to fall to the wayside of Democratic priorities on the campaign trail is marijuana policy, specifically as it relates to legalization and decriminalization. However, 2020 appears to be the year that marijuana policy reform will become a cornerstone of the Democratic platform.

Today, John Hudak, a senior fellow at Brookings and legalization advocate, spoke to students at the Washington Center on the history and the current state of marijuana in American politics. He noted that there has been a widespread shift in public opinion in favor of federally legalizing the drugs. According to a Gallup poll, a majority of Americans have become significantly more liberal on a variety of social issues. In particular, Americans now approve of the legalization of marijuana comprably to that of same-sex marriage at roughly 64%.

“Under federal law, there are no conditions that allow a doctor to prescribe marijuana, a pharmacy to dispense it, or a patient to buy or use it. Marijuana is illegal. Period.”

John Hudak, The Medical Marijuana Mess: a Prescription for Fixing a Broken Policy

As the American public moves left on a number of social issues, the Democratic Party continues to expand its progressive wing. With the emergence of strong voices in the new freshman class in Congress and the dominance of populist candidates (i.e. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders), progressive issues are becoming deeper engrained in the mainstream Democratic platform. Even the more moderate potential Democratic nominees take strong positions on social issues like the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana. For example, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has supported medical and recreational marijuana use, and allowing cannibis businesses to use banks in her state.

After our academic session today, we met with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) in his office. After hearing Hudak’s positions on the legalization of the drug, Drake students were eager to hear from a potential 2020 presidential candidates on the issue. When prompted, Senator Booker commented that if he were President, he “would be inclined” to issue mass pardons for individuals imprisoned for small possession charges, so long as they did not have a history of violent criminal activity. Booker presented the issue as one that has disproportionately negative effects on communities of color. Positioning marijuana legalization as a social justice and equity issue certainly makes it appealing to a youthful and progressive voter base.

Senator Cory Booker leaves Drake students with inspiring words about national unity and hope for a brighter future.

Federal laws, as they currently exist, exacerbate the difficulty for researchers to conduct quality, ethical studies on the clinical effects of marijuana. Democratic candidates like Booker and Klobuchar are likely going to focus parts of their campaigns on reforming the system. It would be in their best interest to look towards advocates like Hudak to inform their agendas. “Marijuana prohibition was designed to criminalize the illicit drug trade, but it has victimized innocent Americans… Comprehensive reform is needed in three key areas: research, access, and legal protection.” If the Democrats can cater to these necessities in 2020, it could have huge impacts on the outcome of the election.

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