Dr. Mitch Rosenthal on the Perspectives of Marijuana Legalization in the Democratic Primary
ROSENTHAL REPORT - MARCH 2020
Where the Democrats Stand on Marijuana Legalization: From Bernie’s Weed for All to Bloomberg’s We Need More Science
With 22 states now permitting the medical use of cannabis, and 11 states plus Washington, D.C., also having made adult-use of recreational pot lawful, the movement to legalize marijuana nationwide has clearly reached a turning point. Additional states, including New York and New Jersey, will address the issue this year as the presidential campaign unfolds. While legalization has so far been a peripheral issue—along with the opioid epidemic, which has killed more than 400,000 Americans—the wide range of proposals from the current field of Democratic candidates reflects a growing polarization between radical strategies and the go-slow approach favored by the Rosenthal Center.
In the progressive lane, Senator Bernie Sanders pledges to sign an executive order on his first day in the oval office directing the attorney general to declassify marijuana as a Schedule One drug, clearing the way for Congress to pass a bill to legalize the drug at the federal level. Next would come decriminalization and the expungement of past convictions. Senator Elizabeth Warren also wants to legalize pot, but would do so by appointing people who support legalization to lead the FDA, Department of Justice and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and proceeding from there.
Warren and Sanders are more concerned about social and economic justice than the health and well-being of those using the drug. To compensate certain communities that have been disproportionately harmed by harsh drug policies—such as those of color—the Vermont senator promises to use marijuana tax revenue for a $20 billion grant program for “entrepreneurs of color” to start their own pot businesses and growing operations, and $10 billion for victims of the war on drugs. Meanwhile, Warren would support women- and minority-owned cannabis businesses while reducing federal funding for law enforcement in non-legal states that fail to adequately address the issue of racial inequities in marijuana arrest rates.
Among the moderates, Joe Biden has flip-flopped from being an ardent marijuana opponent to grudgingly supporting some sort of legalization. This follows both the party’s general drift in that direction and his disavowal of previous support for criminal justice bills with tough penalties for drug offenses. Biden would now let states set their own policies on legalization while enabling more research to better understand the drug’s impact.
For his part, Mike Bloomberg has also “evolved” on legalization, from once calling it “the stupidest thing anyone has ever done,” to backing decriminalization for low-level offenders, expunging criminal records, and allowing legal states to remain so. Most importantly, Bloomberg is rightly concerned about the effect of pot on teenagers, stating during the South Carolina debate, “it’s just nonsensical to push ahead [with legalization] until we know the science.”
And what if President Trump gets re-elected? In 2016, he said legalization should be left up to the states. But now there are suggestions Trump might take a stronger anti-pot stance to counter the more liberal Democratic proposals, depending of course on whom his opposing candidate might be.
This leadership uncertainty among likely candidates comes as the pro-pot lobby is intensifying its efforts in many states at the same time parent and neighborhood groups are making clear their desire to keep pot out of their communities. The most reasonable approach therefore would be to seek consensus across party lines, acknowledging the reality that marijuana does in fact pose a risk to many individuals, especially young people. And as legalization invariably moves ahead—in one form or another—to protect children by, at the very least, implementing strict and regulations on how, where and to whom pot products are sold.