Today’s report that Donald Trump has chosen Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate is bad news for those of us hoping for cannabis policy reform during the next presidency.
First of all, Pence hails from Indiana, where draconian drug laws still reign supreme. Possession of any amount of cannabis in the state still punishable by a $1,000 fine and 180 days in jail.
In 2013, House Bill 1006 was introduced to overhaul Indiana’s criminal code. The bill originally included a clause to lower marijuana possession charges. Pence, however, refused to accept the lowered penalties, and demanded that legislators bump cannabis possession back up to a Class B misdemeanor before signing the measure into law. Pence said at a press conference, “I think we need to focus on reducing crime, not reducing penalties.”
Various attempts to bring Indiana’s drug laws into the 21st century have repeatedly failed, due at least in part to Pence’s widely held belief that cannabis is a gateway drug.
That belief goes against both scientific research and the opinion of the majority of Indianans. In October of 2012, Howey Depauw posed the question of cannabis decriminalization during the Indiana Battleground Poll. When Indiana voters were asked whether they believed the possession of a small amount of cannabis should be an infraction rather than a crime, 54 percent said they favored decriminalization.
Interestingly, one of the more controversial laws passed by Pence opened the door for a minor marijuana victory. Indiana passed the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015, which protects religious liberties and was protested by many objectors as an excuse to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
However, the same day Pence signed the bill into law, cannabis activist Bill Levin established the First Church of Cannabis as a protected religious group. Members are allowed to partake in cannabis as a religious sacrament despite its illegality within the state. In other words, Levin won the day with some high-level government trolling.
Trump has wavered between support for cannabis legalization and condemning recreational use. He was quoted in 1990 as saying that the federal government should legalize cannabis and use the tax revenue to fund drug education programs. He has since backpedaled on recreational legalization, resorting to soundbites that resonate with voters.
“Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen — right? Don’t we agree?” Trump said in an interview with the Washington Post in October 2015. “And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states.”
With Pence by his side, there’s a distinct possibility that Trump’s opinion could change. Although vice presidential powers are usually limited to tie-breaking votes in the U.S. Senate, the voice of a running mate can be powerful and influential. Think of Dick Cheney’s sway over the George W. Bush administration. (Of course, it can also swing the other way: Recall Dan Quayle’s insignificance within the George H.W. Bush White House.) Pence’s anti-cannabis rhetoric could impact the future of Trump’s campaign, and might influence the administration’s drug policy if Trump were to be elected.