What’s (Realistically) Going to Happen With Cannabis in 2020?

Photo by Unsplash

As the 2020 Presidential inauguration inches near, voters—like the candidates—must work with realities rather than dreams. While many game-changing Democratic candidates threw their hat into the ring, only one will survive. And (considering the Republican party’s general stance), their survival will determine the direction of cannabis in the US.

While New Jersey Senator Cory Booker understands the role of social justice in cannabis reform like nobody’s business, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand would expunge the records of all nonviolent cannabis convictions and use the revenue created by cannabis for reparations to those affected by the War on Drugs—in particular people of color who are disproportionately affected—the harsh truth is that neither will be the Democratic pick.

We have to work with who has a realistic shot. As of time of reporting, The New York Times reports that Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren are in a three-way tie for Democratic nominee.

So what would cannabis policy look like under each candidate? Read on for a comprehensive understanding of Biden, Warren, and Sanders’ cannabis plan. All candidates have been approached for comment.

What would a Biden presidency mean for cannabis?

Sorry Uncle Joe fans, but the former Vice President has been called the “worst candidate” as it pertains to cannabis reform. While the surge in polls for renegades Warren and Sanders is promising and indicative of a progressive desire for change, Biden is the historical frontrunner. So what’s so wrong with his cannabis policy?

First, let’s have a history lesson. Biden’s political history as it pertains to cannabis is abysmal. As Rolling Stone reports, Biden was a major player in the War on Drugs. He started his career with a firm stance in favor of smarter enforcement, yet against legalizing cannabis, and told TIME in 2014: “I think the idea of focusing significant resources on interdicting or convicting people for smoking marijuana is a waste of our resources.”

In 2010, he was quoted as saying that (despite scientific evidence to the contrary) cannabis is a “gateway drug.” During his time in the Senate, Biden co-sponsored or wrote the legalization responsible for minimum drug sentencing and sentencing disparities between cocaine and crack respectively. Both were widely understood to be racist. He’s even called for the death penalty for cannabis dealers.

"Public perception of cannabis has changed ... if Biden wants a shot, he's got to explicitly address that."

So his record sucks, to say the least. But does he still feel this way in 2020?

Public perception of cannabis has changed. Perhaps his has too. But if Biden wants a shot, he’s got to explicitly address that. Proposal-wise, under a Biden presidency, we won’t see death penalties for drug dealers, but we likely won’t see federal legalization either. He supports decriminalization and lowering cannabis from a Schedule I to Schedule II substance. He would also pardon non-violent drug offenders and correct the sentencing disparity laws for crack and cocaine (which he helped write).

However, Biden’s weak cannabis policy poses an even more serious threat than restricting cannabis use. Biden actually may be more conservative when it comes to cannabis than Donald Trump. Trump has previously attacked Biden on his outdated drug policies, and could even help keep Trump in power should he not adopt a more up-to-date stance.

What would a Warren presidency mean for cannabis?

If Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, cinches the nomination, it will mean more than a shot at a woman in office. Warren is a vocal supporter of legalization. She co-sponsored Cory Booker’s applaudable Marijuana Justice Act, which not only federally legalizes cannabis, but expunges possession records, and tackles social equity by putting money into low-income communities and people of color who have been disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs.
"To Warren’s credit ... she rightfully credits social injustices and racial sentencing disparities as a chief motivator to free the plant."

Warren does not have a perfect track record on cannabis, though. She’s been called out for exaggerating her voting record, and in her first campaign for Senate in 2011 expressed support for medical cannabis but stopped short of backing recreational. To Warren’s credit, however, she’s evolved with the times, and when asked about federal legalization, rightfully credits social injustices and racial sentencing disparities as a chief motivator to free the plant.

An Elizabeth Warren presidency would be a win for cannabis advocates, medical patients, and those unjustly persecuted by the War on Drugs.

What would a Sanders presidency mean for cannabis?

For every insufferable Bernie bro out there, there’s a reason to want him to win. The senator from Vermont’s cannabis policy is one of them. He’s one of the few Democratic candidates to list his opposition to the War on Drugs right on his website, stating: “The 50 year War on Drugs is a failed policy that has led to mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders and has unfairly targeted people of color.” Sanders also succinctly states: “Marijuana ought to be legalized.”

Sanders can back up his current platform with a career of fighting for social equity and legalization. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) gave Sanders a rare A+ rating for his legislative history. Indeed, as soon as Sanders got to the Senate, he fought for hemp bills. Twenty years ago, he co-sponsored a House bill to legalize medical cannabis. When Sanders ran for president in 2016, he was the first major candidate to publicly endorse legalizing cannabis.

"While other candidates are in favor of legalization, Sanders brings decades of vocal support to the table."

Currently, Sanders is outspoken as ever about legalizing cannabis and ending the expensive, ineffective, and racist War on Drugs. He tweets, he talks, he has a record to back it up. The Senator also uses the subject to address the opioid crisis. We know how Sanders feels about Biden’s plan to make marijuana Schedule II, because he told Hillary Clinton that the same plan “ignored the major issue,” and would place “marijuana in the same category as cocaine and continue to make marijuana a federally regulated substance.”

It’s crucial to understand that Sanders is not just vocal about legalizing cannabis, but has a comprehensive understanding that prohibition keeps people of color disproportionately behind bars, and that the War on Drugs is an outdated and racist waste of taxpayer money. He’s also quick to point out how many kids are arrested for a little weed while Wall Street criminals go unpunished.

While other candidates are in favor of legalization, Sanders brings decades of vocal support to the table with a comprehensive understanding of the social justice component—as any potential future President should.

Sophie Saint Thomas is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn originally from the US Virgin Islands. Her writing is published in GQ, Playboy, VICE, Cosmopolitan, Forbes, Allure, Glamour, Marie Claire, and more.