This article was updated on 2/10/2020.
With over a dozen candidates still in the race to take on President Trump in November, America’s aspiring chief executives are still scrambling for ways to pitch themselves in the lead up to the caucuses, even as the field has narrowed dramatically. So why not use cannabis as a sorting device?
Cannabis used to be a liberals-only issue, but not anymore. In fact, both of President Trump’s declared primary challengers – former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh – are outspoken libertarians and full-throated advocates for legalization.
By contrast, former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the Democratic frontrunners, established himself as an ardent drug warrior in the 1990s and can’t understand why so many young people today want to legalize.
We did the research. Here’s what we found (in alphabetical order). Vote, donate, and volunteer as your conscience demands.
US senator, Colorado
Although he opposed Colorado’s 2012 legalization bill, Amendment 64, Bennet has since become a champion of cannabis legalization, as well as hemp. Most recently, he co-signed the 2019 Marijuana Justice Act.
“We see hemp as a great opportunity to diversity our farms and manufacture high-margin products for the American people.” (2018)
Former vice president, former US senator, Delaware
An outspoken proponent of the war on drugs, as well as the former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joe Biden hasn’t become much more amenable to cannabis in recent years; he is the only 2020 Democratic candidate who remains explicitly opposed to federal legalization. He supports rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug, which would facilitate scientific research. In May, Leafly characterized Biden’s stand with this headline: Biden Pledges Tepid Support for Cannabis Half-Measure.
“There’s a difference between sending someone to jail for a few ounces and legalizing it…The punishment should fit the crime. But I think legalization is a mistake. I still believe [marijuana] is a gateway drug.” (2010)
Then in mid-July, as Biden looked around and realized he was the only candidate (besides Trump) still standing in the way of legalization, he changed his tune. Kind of. The former vice president released a 10-page justice reform proposal that included: decriminalization of cannabis, $20 billion in prevention funds for communities, efforts to reduce racial profiling by police, more job training in prisons, ending private prisons, and other ideas. “I believe my criminal justice reform package is as strong or stronger than anyone else,” Biden said.
By last November, Biden reversed his course even further, telling reporters: “I don’t think it is a gateway drug. There’s no evidence I’ve seen to suggest that.”
Entrepreneur, former mayor of New York City
Although he supports putting legalization in the hands of individual states, Bloomberg remains explicitly opposed to legalization. As the mayor of New York City, Bloomberg oversaw an expansion of “stop-and-frisk” police tactics–over 5 million stops were made on his watch–which primarily targeted young men of color and led to more marijuana arrests than any other charge.
“And today incidentally, we are trying to legalize another addictive narcotic [marijuana]…which is perhaps the stupidest thing anybody has ever done.” (2019)
Mayor, South Bend, Indiana
Although he’s never tackled cannabis during his time as mayor of South Bend, Buttigieg has become a vocal proponent of ending cannabis prohibition and often frames the issue in the context of racial disparities.
“What are we going to do…if we decide that it actually doesn’t make sense to [incarcerate] for unbelievably long amounts of time for non-violent drug offenses, what are we going to do for the people we already did that to?” (2019)
US representative, Hawaii
In the past couple of years Gabbard has sponsored and co-sponsored many cannabis reform bills; a military veteran, she has advocated for veterans’ legal access to cannabis. In March 2019, she and Alaska Rep. Don Young introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, which would remove cannabis from the federal controlled substances list and allow states to regulate the substance with full authority.
“[The criminal justice system] 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.” (2019)
US senator, Minnesota
Klobuchar addresses cannabis far less than most of the other candidates on the campaign trail. Although she signed on to the STATES Act, she has not supported the Marijuana Justice Act. Shortly before announcing her bid for presidency, she deleted a statement of support for the state’s medical marijuana program from her website. But then in February, a little more than a week after entering the presidential race, she said she now supports adult-use legalization, a full 180-degree pivot from her previous policy.
“I support the legalization of marijuana and believe that states should have the right to determine the best approach to marijuana within their borders.”
Former governor, Massachusetts
Patrick has long been opposed to incarcerating non-violent drug offenders, but for most of his career his approach to cannabis reform – including medical marijuana – has oscillated between lukewarm support and mild opposition. He recently announced that he supported full legalization.
“I mean I have heard the views on both sides and I’m respectful of the views of both sides, and I don’t have a lot of energy around [legalizing medical marijuana]…I think California’s experience has been mixed, and I’m sympathetic to the folks who are in chronic pain and looking for some form of relief.” (2012)
US senator, Vermont; Former US representative and mayor of Burlington, VT
Sanders is one of the most pro-cannabis candidates on this list, and he didn’t just discover the issue last month. He first pushed for cannabis legalization 20 years ago, and, during the 2016 election, became the first major party Presidential candidate to support cannabis legalization. He’s currently one of the leading sponsors of the Marijuana Justice Act in Congress.
Last year, Sanders announced he would legalize cannabis through executive order, if necessary.
“Right now, marijuana is listed by the federal government as a Schedule I drug—meaning that it is considered to be as dangerous as heroin. That is absurd.” (2015)
Hedge Fund Manager, philanthropist
Steyer has become a vocal champion of legalization. Last year, he took a stance against federal banking laws that prohibit the social justice-oriented community bank that he founded from investing in cannabis businesses.
“Tom will legalize marijuana, let states pass their own policies, expunge past records, and direct the federal government to open banking services to the marijuana industry. “ (2020)
US president, businessman
Trump has sent mixed messages on cannabis over the past few years. He has said that the issue should be determined by individual states, but also nominated an epically anti-cannabis attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Trump had issues with Sessions, but the AG’s bizarre obsession with cannabis was not one of them. Trump did nothing to halt Sessions’ major move on cannabis, rescinding the Cole Memo in early 2018. Recently his administration shot down a series of bills to facilitate veterans’ access to cannabis. And the White House has blocked a bill that would make it easier to study the use of medical cannabis by those same veterans. In a recent column, Leafly’s Bruce Barcott said this about the gap between Trump’s words and deeds on cannabis issues:
“In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state. Marijuana is such a big thing.” (2015)
US senator, Massachusetts
Although Warren did not support her state’s adult-use cannabis bill in 2016, she has since evolved significantly on the issue; she has sponsored and endorsed a wide range of cannabis reform bills, including the STATES Act, the leading bill to end federal prohibition.
“No one should go to jail for a joint. But more Americans are arrested for marijuana possession than all violent crimes combined.” (2018)
Former governor, Massachusetts
Weld has had a bizarre relationship with cannabis. Or maybe he’s just evolving. He was President Reagan’s man in Massachusetts during the height of the war on drugs in the 1980s, but by 2016 he was the Libertarian party’s candidate for vice president, running alongside former cannabis company executive Gary Johnson, on an anti-prohibition platform. He’s now come back to the Republican fold and currently sits on the board of Acreage Holdings with former US Speaker of the House and longtime cannabis opponent John Boehner.
“I think [national legalization] is inevitable. I don’t think any politician is going to be able to stop it.” (2018)
Yang has been explicit about his pro-legalization views since jumping into the campaign; recently, however, he had to walk back a promise to pardon all non-violent drug offenders on 4/20 to only include individuals convicted of violating federal marijuana laws.
“Our criminalization of marijuana is stupid and racist, particularly now that it’s legal in some states.” (2018)