With two-thirds of Americans now in favor of legalizing cannabis, according to the PEW Research Center, the issue isn’t going away as long as Congress and the Trump White House continue enabling the war on drugs. So here’s an alphabetical rundown of the top 2020 Democratic presidential candidates stances on marijuana, along with a little bit of their history when it comes the plant that only recently became en vogue for politicians of all stripes to support.
Back in 1988, Biden co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which erected stiff, mandatory minimum prison sentences that have left tens of thousands of Americans incarcerated, many of whom are disproportionately minorities. That act has also been decried for codifying racism by mandating harsher prison sentences for those caught with crack cocaine (which has always been more common in urban communities) than for those arrested with powder cocaine (the country club drug of choice).
And even though Biden – who is a well-known teetotaler – now says he supports marijuana decriminalization, many advocates remain skeptical that it would be a top priority for his administration. That’s why legalization proponents get worried when they hear Biden call cannabis a “gateway drug.”
“The gateway theory has been soundly dismissed by established science,” Morgan Fox, the spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told Wikileaf. “And any candidate that continues to cling to outdated drug-war propaganda is going to suffer at the polls, especially among the two-thirds of Americans that want to make cannabis legal.”
The former mayor of Newark, New Jersey still lives in the gritty city where racial justice disparities continue to abound. Since he was sent to Washington as a senator in 2013 – back when marijuana was laughed off by most politicians – he’s become one of the leading voices in Congress advocating for normalizing cannabis.
In 2017, Booker took the marijuana debate to a whole new level in Washington when he introduced the groundbreaking Marijuana Justice Act. While the legislation would legalize marijuana at the federal level, it also went much further than other proposals out at the time, because it’s squarely focused on racial injustice.
The proposal attempts to address the ravages left in the wake of the war on drugs by expunging the records of anyone who’s been charged with a nonviolent marijuana offense. It also sets up a community fund to invest much needed federal resources into the communities hit hardest by the nation’s ‘tough on crime’ approach that’s been deployed over the past few decades. The money would go to things like job training programs and community centers, while also helping former convicts learn the skills to assist them in becoming fully functioning members of society.
The junior senator from New Jersey also played a key role in drafting the First Step Act, which President Trump signed into law in 2018. While it didn’t go as far as Booker wanted, it was the most momentous change in federal sentencing policy in decades because it gave judges more discretion in sentencing, as opposed to being forced to slap non-violent drug offenders with unforgivingly long mandatory minimum sentences. Among other items, it also narrowed the sentencing disparity between people arrested for crack and powder cocaine.
Booker has also authored the REDEEM Act, which seeks to empower nonviolent drug felons by allowing them to request that judges expunge their criminal records – criminal records that have hung over hundreds of thousands of Americans for the rest of their lives once they were able to leave prison. It also tries to make it easier for juveniles to get their arrest records wiped clean.
Booker also coauthored the CARERS Act, which forbids the federal government from going after medical marijuana users in states where it’s legal. That was aimed squarely at former Attorney General Jeff Sessions – a prohibitionist who many feared would try to use federal law enforcement resources to try to enforce his antiquated ideology.
The newcomer to national politics has been propelled onto the national stage after serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. While Buttigieg is now calling for marijuana legalization at the national level – and for ending criminal penalties for all drug – his record as mayor of a town of just over 100,000 people is more complex.
The mayor still hasn’t moved on cannabis policy in his hometown, and the state of Indiana remains behind a majority of other states when it comes to even medical marijuana, which is currently forbidden there.
While Buttigieg is calling for sweeping changes to federal drug laws, he’s also failed to earn the trust of many African American voters nationwide and at home. He drew criticism at home for firing Darryl Boykins – the first-ever black police chief of South Bend – who had been compiling evidence of racism among white officers on his force when he was canned.
Buttigieg also drew a firestorm of anger from local African American residents for his handling of the killing of Eric Logan by a white police officer. The young mayor has tried to heal this divide by introducing what he’s calling his “Douglass Plan” that’s aimed at healing racial disparities, in part by overhauling the nation’s drug laws. He says his plan could clear 50 percent of the current U.S. prison population by simply decriminalizing drug possession.
Since Hawaii voters sent Gabbard to represent them in the House of Representatives back in 2013, the congresswoman has signed on to many marijuana legalization proposals. And she’s the author of the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2019, which would remove marijuana from the federal government’s list of Controlled Substances. She’s also pushed the Marijuana Data Collection Act, which would force the government to issue a report on how state’s cannabis legalization policies are playing out in communities nationwide.
Gabbard has sought to make criminal justice a central plank of her longshot presidential bid from day one. When she officially launched her campaign she railed against the American judicial system, which she says “puts people in prison for smoking marijuana while allowing corporations like Purdue Pharma, who are responsible for the opioid-related deaths of thousands of people, to walk away scot-free with their coffers full.”
The former attorney general of California has come under fire for her tenure as the top law enforcement official in the nation’s most populous state where her office prosecuted more than 1,500 people for marijuana crimes on her watch. But Harris has tried to catch up with some of her opponents on the topic of late.
In 2019 she became the lead Senate sponsor of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, though the legislation has really been driven by House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D- N.Y.). This month he ushered the marijuana legalization bill through his powerful committee – making history by becoming the first congressional committee to ever pass a cannabis decriminalization bill.
The proposal seeks to incentivize states to expunge past marijuana offenses, while also imposing a 5 percent tax on marijuana sales across America – money that would be used to help revitalize the communities most harmed by the war on drugs. If elected, Harris is promising to make criminal justice reform a centerpiece of her administration. She says that starts with decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level, along with trying to right the decades of wrongs that federal prohibition – along with the over-incarceration left in its wake – has wrought in most urban areas from coast to coast.
*Update: As of December 4, 2019, Kamala Harris has dropped out of the primaries.
The former prosecutor has now been serving Minnesotans in the Senate for more than a decade. In that time she’s never been a marijuana advocate. Sure, Klobuchar’s put her name on a few marijuana bills – like one to give state’s the right to decide their own marijuana policies and another to increase research on cannabis – but she’s yet to take the lead and author one of her own.
Klobuchar’s also notable for what she has NOT done. She stands out in this crowded presidential field for being the only U.S. senator running – and at one point there were seven sitting senators in the field – to not attach her name to Sen. Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act – a sweeping reimagining of the nation’s cannabis policies with an eye towards trying towards social and racial justice.
While Hillary Clinton failed to endorse marijuana legalization in the 2016 election – which many marijuana advocates think played a role in costing her the election – even back then Bernie Sanders became a national leader on the issue in Washington. And that was back when pot was still just a punchline for many in the political class.
When Sanders introduced his Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act back in 2015 it was either seen as a pipe dream or as something for critics to mock the Vermont Independent senator for, but – like many of his policies – his progressive stance on cannabis has now reverberated across the Democratic Party and most other candidates are now using the same language that he did four years ago.
“Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use,” Sanders told students at George Mason University back in 2015. “That’s wrong. That has got to change.”
This time around Sanders is also bullish. He’s promising to legalize cannabis in his first 100 days in the White House by using an executive order (a timeline that’s idealistic though not necessarily impossible, because it’s dependent on him getting his cabinet quickly confirmed in the Senate). Then he’s promising to move on to Congress who he’ll push to pass a law legalizing marijuana, just so that another president can’t easily rescind legalization.
But Sanders – who has struggled to gain the trust of many minority voters – has taken note of the turning tides on the issue, and he’s now promising to review and then expunge the records of all of those Americans with past marijuana convictions. And he’s also vowing to put federal money where his mouth is by promising to invest $50 billion in the minority communities that have faced the brunt of the failed war on drugs. Some of those funds would go to help get minorities more access to capital so they can be a part of the now multi-billion-dollar cannabis industry, while also providing job training to those who were formerly incarcerated for drug crimes.
The billionaire former financial titan is strait-laced and pragmatic, but he’s been holding on to a secret when it comes to marijuana.
“Loved it,” Steyer gushed without hesitation to Wikileaf when he described smoking weed while overseas when he was a young man. He’s too risk-averse to use it on American soil where it’s still federally prohibited, but he says when he was abroad as a youngster, he was given an opportunity to try weed, so he sparked a lighter without delay.
“I thought: This is my chance,” the philanthropist and top Democratic donor said. Now he says he wants his fellow citizens to be given a similar opportunity without fear of arrest. “I’m for marijuana to be legal. Period.”
Steyer’s never held public office, but his criminal justice record in the private sector has garnered criticism. He founded Farallon Capital Management – one of the most massive hedge funds in the U.S. The firm invested in private prisons. He says the argument back then was all about whether the private sector could run prisons better than the federal or state governments.
“I sold them 15 years ago…because I realized it was wrong,” Steyer said. “Look, when we originally did that no one had decided whether they were right or wrong. I thought about it, and I decided that it’s wrong.”
The senator from Massachusetts is a star in progressive circles, but her biggest move yet on cannabis came when she teamed up with a Republican senator on marijuana legislation back in 2018. With fear that former-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was going to use DEA and/or FBI agents to go after people in states that had legalized cannabis, Warren teamed up with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Col.) to author the STATES – or the “Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States” – Act.
Unlike other social justice-oriented proposals, the STATES Act would merely federally de-schedule marijuana and give officials – or voters – in every state the power to decide their own local cannabis laws. President Trump has signaled support for the effort. Still, it has sat untouched since it was introduced. And now with Gardner as one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in 2020, Warner doesn’t even want to talk about the bipartisan pair teaming up to work on it.
And with Warren trying to expand her appeal with minority voters, she’s barely even talking about her own bill. Instead, she’s been praising and highlighting other legislative proposals she’s cosponsored of late that include racial and social justice components, like Sen. Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act.
But possibly most notably, this year Booker refused to even co-sponsor Warren’s STATES Act, which he had originally endorsed when it was first introduced. He now says – with federal marijuana legalization almost inevitable in the coming years – that he can’t get behind any legalization proposal that fails to try to address the harm mass incarceration has caused in economically depressed minority communities, like his own.
As an aside, Warren told me in 2018 that she’d never even tried marijuana. But my offer for her to come test it out at my place just down the block from the Capitol still stands…
The young tech entrepreneur is all about concise slogans, and that’s why he’s got a webpage on his campaign site that’s simply headlined: Legalize Marijuana.
Still, while he’s supportive of cannabis legalization – and even wants “to pardon those in prison for non-violent marijuana-related offenses” – it’s not been a defining issue of this political newcomer’s longshot presidential bid.
While at this moment there are still a whopping 18 Democratic presidential primary contenders, we chose to go by the DNC’s own rulebook and merely focus on the candidates who have garnered enough support to qualify for the party’s debates. If you have a problem with that methodology, please take it up with the DNC.