Marijuana Legalization and the Presidential Election

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Even before getting to the issue of marijuana policy, let me say the current presidential campaign is unprecedented in many ways, few of which are positive.

The Trump Factor

The current campaign on the Republican side, which has been dominated by Donald Trump, has been the most incredible spectacle of the several presidential campaigns of my lifetime. I am an old guy, so I’ve seen quite a few. The hate-filled, racist campaigns of George Wallace (1964, 68 and 72), based on a platform of racial segregation and appealing to the anger of white southerners, are the most similar to the current Trump campaign. Most of us had believed those hateful and divisive times were far behind us. Then came The Donald.

It is not just Trump. Despite an economy that has bounced back from the “great recession,” creating millions of new jobs and lowering unemployment to the lowest levels in many years, the abiding theme on the Republican side is anger. Republican primary voters are angry at elected officials, at immigrants, at Muslims and apparently at anyone and everyone who looks (or thinks) differently than they do.

The Republican Party appears on the verge of handing themselves and their presidential nomination to a dangerous demagogue who is openly and proudly racist, sexist, ignorant, offensive, uncivil, ill-tempered and incredibly narcissistic. Having encouraged the Tea Party extremists to find a comfortable home in the right-wing of their party, the Republicans are now discovering the inmates have taken over the institution, and they clearly do not know what to do about it.

Personally, as a liberal/progressive Democrat, I can, to some degree, enjoy witnessing the vulgar spectacle the Republican campaign has become – sort of like watching a demolition derby at a stock car race where the winner is determined by who is finally left standing after all the other cars have been destroyed. We know we should not allow ourselves to enjoy such a dangerous spectacle, but it’s impossible to look the other way.

As we witness the political food fight, most of us have some concern that so many of our fellow citizens – clearly not a majority, but a substantial portion of the Republican Party base – would identify with and support such a despicable candidate and his hateful, divisive rhetoric. While the likelihood that Trump could actually be elected president is low, the possibility is absolutely frightening for a majority of Americans.

The Election May Not Be Significant for Marijuana Policy

Surprisingly, the result of the presidential election will likely have little significant impact on marijuana policy.

Since a majority in Congress remain hostile to the possibility of legalizing marijuana, there is little chance that federal marijuana laws will change dramatically for the next few years, regardless of who is president. We may be successful at eliminating the problems legal growers and dispensaries currently experience finding a bank that will handle their business account or process their credit card transactions, but other anti-marijuana federal laws will likely remain in place for several more years.

The successful state-based strategy of the legalization movement will largely remain in place, and all of the remaining candidates agree that the states should be permitted to continue to experiment with marijuana legalization. Senator Bernie Sanders holds the most progressive marijuana position, favoring full legalization, but as you will see below, none of the three candidates who remain most viable appear to present a threat to the continued success of the legalization movement.

Trump and Marijuana

As with most policy issues, it seems impossible for Trump to decide what his marijuana policy is. Going back to 1990, Donald Trump actually called for the legalization of all drugs, saying “We’re losing badly the war on drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war.”

By 2015 when speaking at the Conservative Political Caucus, Trump had changed his mind, stating his opposition to legalizing marijuana. “I think it’s bad, and I feel strongly about that,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado, some big problems.” Trump waffled again on the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News in February of this year and indicated he was ambivalent about legalizing marijuana, saying “… in some ways it’s good, and in other ways it’s bad.”

When pushed about what he would do about the states that have already legalized marijuana, Trump said he would leave those states alone. “If they vote for it, they vote for it.” At a Nevada campaign rally in October 2015, he further clarified that position. “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.”

He did stress he is “100 percent” in favor of medical marijuana, citing his personal familiarity with patients who had benefited from medical marijuana.

Trump claims he has never smoked marijuana, nor ever had a drink of alcohol or used tobacco.

Clinton and Marijuana

Hillary Clinton, like most establishment politicians, has gradually evolved in her views toward marijuana, starting as a true drug warrior, and more recently moderating her views to accommodate the changing public attitudes toward marijuana use.

Clinton says she favors moving marijuana from Schedule I down to Schedule II under federal law to allow for more research on the drug and she has finally endorsed the medical use of marijuana.

Most importantly, she has made it clear she will permit the states to continue to experiment with full legalization, referring to them as “laboratories of democracy.”

“These statewide experiments can help us point the way to national policy, so I’ll continue the Obama Administration’s enforcement guidelines that allow states to experiment. … I really believe it’s important that states like Colorado lead the way, so that we can learn what works and what doesn’t work. And I would certainly not want the federal government to interfere with the legal decision made by the people of Colorado … I want to give you the space and I want other states to learn from you, what works and what doesn’t work.”

She has also said “We have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana.”

Clinton claims she has never smoked marijuana.

Sanders and Marijuana

Bernie Sanders clearly has the most favorable marijuana position, saying “The time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana.” He has also acknowledged that he tried marijuana on a few occasions when he was younger.

In November of 2015 he introduced The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act in Congress, calling for the removal of marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act, and for the states to decide for themselves whether they want to legalize marijuana, free from interference from the federal government.

“In my view, states should have the right to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws now govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco. And among other things, that means that recognized businesses in states that have legalized marijuana should be fully able to use the banking system without fear of federal prosecution.”

While we all experience what has become an especially unpleasant campaign season, at least it appears that we need not worry that the results of the campaign will undermine the legalization movement, regardless of who eventually wins.

About Author

Keith Stroup is a Washington, DC public-interest attorney who founded NORML in 1970. Stroup first smoked marijuana when he was a first-year law student in 1965 and has been a regular smoker and a cannabis activist ever since. In 1992 Stroup was the recipient of the Richard J. Dennis Drugpeace Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Drug Policy Reform presented by the Drug Policy Foundation; in 2010 he received the Al Horn Award from the NORML Legal Committee for a lifetime of work advancing the cause of justice; and in 2012, Stroup received the High Times Lifetime Achievement Award. Keith currently serves as NORML's Legal Counsel and on NORML's Board of Directors. He resides in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife.

  • 1Bugler1

    Better hope Trump loses. He has 2 anti marijuana legalization people on his team looking for top positions in his administration……….

    • Sandy Bean

      He said quite clearly that he’d leave it to the states. Hillary, on the other hand, clearly stated that she wants it to remain illegal federally.

      He also has suggested ending the drug war, which would decimate the illegal drug trade and save $40 billion annually.

  • Three Dollar Bill

    if they legalize pot, what will become of the black market pay offs ?