How Cannabis Will Define the 2020 Election

Public opinion on marijuana legalization has shifted dramatically in the past decade as cannabis takes root as a mainstream American industry. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) is a primary example personifying this shift: In February, she admitted on a radio show last February that she did indeed inhale in her smoking days of the past, even though as San Francisco District Attorney she opposed cannabis policy reform in 2010, and didn’t reverse course until 2015. However, as a presidential hopeful, she's changed her tune completely, having adopted the now-trendy stance to legalize marijuana. 

Harris is only one example of how Democrat presidential contenders are zeroing in on cannabis reform. Contenders Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kirsten Gillibrand have all signed onto fellow presidential hopeful Cory Booker’s bill, the Marijuana Justice Act, which would legalize marijuana nationwide. Beto O’Rourke has also called for federal legalization, and even Joe Biden had to change his position on cannabis in order to get more in line with the party, (though he only went so far as to support federal decriminalization). 

While presidential candidates barnstorm state-to-state, up on the Hill in Washington D.C., lawmakers have been debating the merits of cannabis legalization, while considering a range of bills with bipartisan support to legislate issues such as hemp production or canna-businesses access to banking. Between the 2019 Congress and state legislatures, there are some 1,162 cannabis-related bills on the table, according to Tom Angell of Marijuana Moment, and many show promise for success.

One of the most recent victories came on June 20th, with a 267-165 vote in the Senate to prohibit the Department of Justice (DOJ) from using federal funds to interfere with state-legal cannabis programs.

H.R. 3055 is a bill that provides appropriations to DOJ, the Department of Commerce, and others. But it’s Amendment 398, tacked onto  H.R. 3055 and introduced by marijuana-friendly Congressman Earl Bluemenauer of Oregon, that would make a significant difference for cannabis-legal states. If H.R. 3055 passes, it would do for adult-use cannabis programs what the 10 year-old Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment (aka Rohrabacher-Blumenauer) does for state-legal medical marijuana programs: provide legally compliant business owners and consumers some assurance that they won’t be criminalized by the federal government.

Another major step forward for cannabis advocates came on July 10, when leaders from reform organizations like Doctors for Cannabis Regulation and the Cannabis Trade Federation, joined groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch to argue on behalf of cannabis legalization to the Congressional Committee on the Judiciary, a House of Representatives committee  that oversees justice within the federal courts and federal law enforcement agencies. 

During the July 10 hearing titled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform,” for the first time in decades, members of Congress entertained a healthy debate about ending federal cannabis prohibition. What made the hearing even more noteworthy was its emphasis on how to potentially correct the Drug War’s punitive policies toward communities of color. 

Advocates also argued in favor of descheduling the plant, by removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), where it currently sits alongside heroin as a Schedule 1 drug — which by definition implies that it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

Given this promising trend in addressing marijuana law reform, the 2020 election couldn't come soon enough. But is federal cannabis legalization even on the horizon? And if so, how will progressive cannabis policies on the federal level be impacted by all the state-level legalization measures we've seen since the last election? To find out, Civilized spoke with the three major advocacy organizations on the forefront of cannabis policy reform: NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), MPP (Marijuana Policy Project), and DPA (Drug Policy Alliance). 

Industry Equity and Justice Reforms

While stumping for her presidential run in Youngstown, Ohio, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) neatly summarized the need for equity and justice within the cannabis industry. Asked by an attendee to clarify the idea of white privilege, Gillibrand used the example of how the War on Drugs (and cannabis prohibition in particular) targets people of color to illustrate her point

“If your son is 15 years old and smokes pot, he smokes just as much as the black boy in his neighborhood and the Latino boy in his neighborhood, but that black or Latino boy is four times more likely to be arrested,” she told the gathered crowd. “Your son will not likely have to deal with that because he is white.” 

As more state legalization measures pass and cannabis becomes more widely accepted, investor enthusiasm is growing and more mainstream and monied industry hopefuls are stepping into the space with more confidence. Operating on traditional business models that demand clean records and massive capital, communities of color are being largely shut out of the industry, and many still languish in prison for small-time cannabis offenses. 

Kamani Jefferson serves on the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, playing dual roles as treasurer and political strategist. For him, cannabis industry equity is about leveling the playing field for communities of color that have been disproportionately targeted by the War on Drugs. “Essentially, this industry was built on the backs of people who are still in jail, or went to jail [for cannabis violations],” he told Civilized. “We need to recognize that people are still locked up, and when they’re coming out, they need help getting reestablished again.” 

Equity measures could include using money from state-legal programs to address Drug War harms, reinvesting in communities disproportionately affected by the Drug War, encouraging the industry to employ people of color and/or those with cannabis violations on their criminal records, and opening pathways for marginalized groups to much-needed capital to start businesses. 

At NORML, deputy director Paul Armentano says that criminal record expungement needs to be a cornerstone of any marijuana law reform effort, arguing that criminalizing cannabis consumers — given that the herb is legal in many states — makes no sense. “Branding these individuals, many of whom are at an age when they are just beginning their professional careers as lifelong criminals results in a litany of lost opportunities, including the potential loss of employment, housing, voting rights, professional licensing, and student aid, and serves no legitimate societal purpose,” he said. 

Matthew Schweich, deputy director of MPP, says that there is growing support among voters to address cannabis industry inequity, as well as an expectation that legalization bills and ballot initiatives should directly address expungement and equity. For example, in 2018, California passed SB 1294 to help address Drug War harms by allocating $10 million to support local programs that minimize obstacles to business ownership by minorities and help to ensure their sustainability. 

In Michigan, where cannabis was legalized  for adult use in 2018, the state Marijuana Regulatory Agency announced that 19 communities (which were chosen because more than 30 percent of their residents live below the federal poverty level and have above-average rates of marijuana convictions) will receive a large discount on cannabis industry licensing fees, as well as other resources like help understanding regulations and assistance for applications.  

And Michigan is only the most recent state to do such a thing. Jefferson explains that in Massachusetts anyone hoping for a cannabis business license must also include a positive impact plan that outlines specific goals that promote equity and diversity with their licensing application. And when Illinois Governor JB Pritzker signed HB 1438, an initiative led by Illinois lawmakers to legalize cannabis for adult use, he also authorized the expungement of cannabis-related offenses for around 770,000 residents.

“Straight up legalization of the [cannabis] market isn’t really going to cut it for us,” said Michael Collins, director of national affairs for DPA. He acknowledges that the juxtaposition of wealthy, white males currently leading the industry, and communities of color, who continue to be largely shut out of the industry, has led DPA to take clear positions on criminal record expungement and industry equity. “The bills we back will have to have some level of equity, racial justice, and criminal justice reform,” he adds. 

States on Deck in 2020

Cannabis legalization took a leap forward in 2016 when seven states voted for either adult use or medical marijuana programs (California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts passed adult use legalization, while Florida, North Dakota, and Arkansas all passed medical legalization). 

The only failure for legalization advocates in 2016 was Arizona, but that is likely to change in 2020, as Schweich strongly believes that Arizona voters will be deciding on adult use legalization in the next election cycle. He notes that MPP only works in states where more than 50 percent of polled residents support legalization. “We’re very thoughtful about where we launch campaigns," he said. "I expect we’ll be successful [in Arizona].”

Armentano anticipates that several states — including Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont — will be considering adult use legalization in 2020. Meanwhile, advocates in states like Nebraska and Mississippi are already in the midst of ballot initiative campaigns, and, Armentano adds, the New Jersey legislature is likely to pass a resolution calling for adult-use legalization to be included on the 2020 ballot.

In states like Nebraska, Idaho, Wyoming, and South Dakota, MPP is working with a number of local allied organizations on 2020 initiatives related to medical marijuana, or adult use in the case of Montana and Ohio, Schweich says. State-level cannabis legalization in one form or another has been the driving force for cannabis reform conversations at the federal level, he adds, but there is a downside to states pushing the debate. “If 2020 goes poorly — which I do not expect — that would diminish the urgency of federal reform and would slow down its progress.”

A Bipartisan Issue

Collins notes that the majority of Democrats running for president are supportive of cannabis legalization through the lens of racial justice. “Democrats are talking jobs, revenue, tax, and doing it for racial justice reasons like expungement and equity,” he said. 

He also notes that the more states that pass cannabis reform, the more support there is among Congressional Republicans because of the GOP emphasis on states’ rights. “The Republicans are always following the state, so when you add a state representative from a state like Colorado or Alaska, you add some Republican senators,” Collins said. “That is very helpful for moving the ball forward in Congress.”

Some efforts are already being made to reform federal cannabis policy. Recently, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and New York State Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) introduced the Marijuana Opportunity and Freedom Act, a law that would prioritize descheduling cannabis, investing in communities most impacted by the drug war, record sealing and expungement programs, and preventing marijuana businesses from targeting advertisements to children. 

Collins predicts that if Democrats retain the House and capture the Senate — and if Schumer is elevated to Senate Majority Leader — it will be all systems go for federal cannabis reform. “Schumer is very into this issue," he added. "He really wants to get this [cannabis reform] done."

As for Schweich, he believes that even if Democrats lose both the House and Senate, voters will still support cannabis legalization measures. “I wouldn’t count out our chances at making progress [on cannabis reform]," he said. "Even voters that don’t want legalization in their own states support states making their own decisions.” 

President Trump has thus far maintained an uncharacteristically polite distance from cannabis reform issues. Collins says he believes that Trump, who has so far shown neither support nor opposition, is likely to be swayed by whichever way the polling winds blow. If a recent Gallup poll showing support for legalization at 66 percent is any indication, expect to see Trump support federal cannabis reform policies in the presidential election.

NORML’s Armentano would like to see voters presented with presidential candidates who have a clear position on cannabis policy reform. “Do they wish to elect a president who represents a party that seeks to maintain the failed policy of cannabis prohibition, or do they wish to elect a president who recognizes this failure and seeks to rectify it?” he mused. The 2020 election is a mere 17 months away, and ultimately, cannabis policy reform is in the hands of the voters. Don’t forget to show up on election day.

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