T he coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on cannabis distributors and dispensaries, landing blow after blow as some businesses were forced to shut their doors to customers while still not being allowed to deliver. Those same businesses have been forced to scramble as they don't qualify for federal aid. The overall effect of COVID-19 on the economy has pushed people towards black market cannabis, which is often cheaper than their legal counterparts. Stocks in major cannabis corporations have been tumbling away as marijuana operations bleed money. Despite growing support for legislation legalizing marijuana for recreational use, the issue has fallen on the back burner as the United States tries to picture what a new normal could possibly look like. The upcoming presidential election will have major impacts on what that new normal could be. So where does each candidate stand on the issue?
The Republican Incumbent
President Donald Trump has wavered in his position on cannabis. In the past, he voiced support for a bipartisan bill called the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES Act), aimed at protecting areas that have legalized cannabis. That would have amended how marijuana is viewed under the Controlled Substances Act, which is the law that federally classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug. Trump said in June of 2018 that he “probably will end up supporting it.” However, in a leaked audio conversation that took place just two months before Trump made his statement on the STATES Act, the President privately expressed a very different view. Lev Parnas, an associate of Donald Trump' personal attorney Rudy Guiliani, leaked audio from April 2018 where Trump said marijuana makes you “lose IQ points.” The National Institute of Drug Abuse, which is a federal agency, refutes that notion entirely. The president's own son, Donald Junior, is also heard in that leaked audio disagreeing with the statement, saying, “Alcohol does much more damage.” The U.S. Attorney General at that time, Jeff Sessions, is firmly against the legalization of marijuana. He has voiced throughout his career that he feels it is a gateway drug, and that legalizing medical marijuana is a mistake. He’s brought up cannabis laws during debates about immigration, and once said, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” The current US AG, Bill Barr, has said the current legal situation in the United States where the federal government is so at odds with certain states is intolerable. Barr gave his ear to the STATES Act as a way to remedy that situation. However, that shouldn’t be viewed as support for marijuana. Barr told one of the sponsors of the STATES Act, “Personally I would still favor one uniform federal rule against marijuana, but if there is not sufficient consensus to obtain that, then I think the way to go is to permit a more federal approach so states can make their own decisions within the framework of the federal law, so we're not just ignoring the enforcement of federal law." The sitting president recently doubled down on his anti-marijuana sentiments. In February, he removed a rider that sat in the budget for years, protecting legal marijuana industries from interference by the Justice Department. That same month, President Trump's Director of Strategic Communications for the 2020 campaign, Marc Lotter, said in an interview that cannabis should remain illegal federally. Lotter told 8 News NOW Las Vegas, “I think the President's been pretty clear about his views on marijuana at the federal level. I know many states have taken a different path, but I think the President is looking at this from the standpoint of a parent – the parent of a young person. To make sure that we keep our kids away from drugs, they need to be kept illegal. That is the federal policy.”
The Democratic Challenger
That brings us to the next question: Where does Joe Biden stand on marijuana laws? On July 8th, 2020, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders put out a joint-release as part of a series of “Unity Task Force Recommendations” on “Combating the Climate Crisis and Pursuing Environmental Justice.” In it, Biden promises to decriminalize marijuana, reschedule it on the federal level, and support the legalization of medical marijuana. Like Trump said in the past, Biden now says he’ll support states choosing to make their own decisions on recreational use. Biden also came out to clearly express the Justice Department should not intervene in marijuana cases where adult use is legal in that particular state. Biden says past criminal convictions that were solely for cannabis use should be expunged automatically. The recommendations paper adds, “And rather than involving the criminal justice system, Democrats support increased use of drug courts, harm reduction interventions, and treatment diversion programs for those struggling with substance use disorders.” The Stash reported in November of 2019 that the presidential hopeful says he will not opt for national legalization of marijuana until more studies can be done on it. The problem is, it’s very difficult for scientists to get the clearance and funding to study an illegal substance. Biden has said before that he supports the decriminalization of marijuana. His website has a section on criminal justice reform, under which he states, “No one should be incarcerated for drug use alone. Instead, they should be diverted to drug courts and treatment.” Biden also notes that the criminal justice system unfairly targets people of color, and the former vice president says his goal is to “root out the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system.” There’s also a section on his website labeled “Joe Biden’s Agenda for the Black Community” that talks about reforms for programs in housing and healthcare. Nowhere on his website is marijuana mentioned. Throughout his career, Biden had considerably harsher views on weed. The Director of National Affairs at Drug Policy Action, Michael Collins, told Rolling Stone Biden was “the architect, in all ways, of the war on drugs,” and said he escalated it. Rolling Stone also reported that a spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, Mason Tvert, called Biden “one of the most aggressive drug warriors in Congress.” So sure, his change of heart now is at least some progress. The Biden-Bernie recommendations also say tax revenue from legal marijuana industries should be invested in Black and brown communities that were hardest hit by the War on Drugs. The document does not admit fault for aiding and abetting that war. All in all, it seems the 2020 election will not result in the major reform marijuana users are hoping for, but it has a chance of working toward slow and steady progress.