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Do Podesta’s Hacked Emails Reveal Clinton’s Cannabis Policy?

Published on October 26, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton peers over a podium while addressing an audience during a campaign stop at Trident Technical College Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Political reporters have been rummaging through the Russian-hacked emails of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign director, looking for evidence of dastardly acts and questionable ethics. Wikileaks has been posting the Podesta files a batch at a time for the past few days in order to either extend Julian Assange’s time in the spotlight or maximize the damage to the Clinton campaign, depending on your preferred theory.

So far, Podesta and Clinton seem to be surviving this unkind exposure fairly well. A smoking gun has yet to emerge. The Podesta files are, for the most part, a massive record of a political campaign in the midst of a multiyear grind. Aides and advisers suggest tweaks to the candidate’s message. They swap suggestions about going after Bernie Sanders’s weak points. They bicker about proper email etiquette.

Once Clinton is elected, cannabis advocates will have serious work to do.

Here at Leafly, we were curious about the place of cannabis in all these messages. Is there insight to be gained about Hillary Clinton’s plans for legalization, or lack of same, somewhere within the Podesta Files?

There is.

A thorough search of the files turns up a few hints here and there. An overall picture emerges of a candidate and a campaign that do not take the issue of cannabis legalization seriously. Which means that once Clinton is elected, cannabis advocates will have some serious work to do.

How to win over millennials?

Podesta’s emails reveal a consistent concern about millennial voters and how to woo them away from the sweet, sweet authenticity and progressive beliefs of Bernie Sanders.

In July 2015, Teddy Goff, the Clinton campaign’s digital media director and 31-year-old “friendly neighborhood millennial” (as Goff good-naturedly referred to himself), sent a note about how Clinton’s speaking affect and reaction to attacks plays with younger voters.

“I think we are at risk of failing a kind of smell test,” Goff wrote, “even if our talking points are all spot on, if we don’t figure out how to project legitimacy and authenticity and a little bit of (credible, non-forced) cool factor to this crowd.”

Almost exactly one month later, Hillary Clinton wrote campaign manager Robby Mook, following a conversation Clinton had with US Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, the leading cannabis legalization advocate on Capitol Hill:

“[Blumenauer] wants to support me on policy and fundraising specifically by helping on how to talk about marijuana and the need for fair taxes and banking and on animal welfare concerns which he says are the sleeper issues that will turn out young people and motivate voters,” Clinton wrote. “He has a lot of ideas about what I could do which would be the first time these interests are organized for a presidential campaign. And several states—NV, OH, and FL—will have marijuana initiatives on the ballot in 2016.”

Clinton ended the note by asking Mook to “please follow up and let me know what develops.” Mook agreed to do so. “He’s a super delegate,” he wrote, “so we definitely want his endorsement!”

Blumenauer eventually endorsed Clinton—five months later—but there’s no indication she ever took him up on the offer to help her understand and talk about cannabis issues.

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That’s a shame. Apparently nobody on Clinton’s campaign team was aware of the work done by the Pew Research Center, which for the past six years has tracked the eye-popping spike in support for cannabis legalization among millennials. An overwhelming 71 percent of millennials now support legalization. That’s not medical. That’s adult use.

Millennials believe strongly in legalization. It’s one of the few issues that actually drives them to the polls. Whether it’s Colorado in 2012 or Florida in 2014, legalization measures trigger a spike in young voter turnout. The data doesn’t lie. And yet Clinton’s advisers either ignored the trend or knew something about their candidate’s reticence to address the subject in a legitimate and authentic way.

Allies in Boston are against legalization

One particularly enlightening email exchange came on Sept. 29, 2015, when Clinton’s policy team sent her a brief prior to an event with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. At the time, Walsh was a popular political figure in the Northeast. He hadn’t yet committed to a presidential candidate, and his endorsement was coveted by both Clinton and Sanders. “Hillary Clinton could certainly use support from a popular urban mayor with close ties to labor and the recovery community,” the Boston Globe reported earlier that week.

In the brief, Clinton’s staff emphasized the “areas of overlap between [Walsh’s] priorities and YOUR substance abuse initiative.”

Here’s one of the keys to Hillary Clinton’s discomfort with cannabis legalization: She sees it largely as a substance-abuse issue.

That becomes painfully clear through the briefing, as Clinton’s staff ties Massachusetts prescription drug and heroin epidemic into a discussion of Mayor Marty Walsh’s opposition to cannabis legalization. “The issue is expected to be put to a state referendum in Massachusetts in 2016,” her staff wrote, “and Walsh has said he will lead a crusade against it.” Walsh, who is very open about his status as a recovering alcoholic, views cannabis as a gateway drug, despite decades of scientific evidence debunking that theory.

The briefing says nothing—not a word—about cannabis legalization. Her aides do prepare her to answer a hostile question about the 1980s drug-prevention program DARE being “widely seen as a failure.”

Clinton’s answer? “We cannot give up on preventive education and early intervention,” says the briefing paper. Besides, “DARE itself has been undergoing an overhaul in recent years to update its curriculum according to evidence-based models. We cannot give up on prevention.”

To anyone, of any generation, who’s even the slightest bit familiar with the debacle of DARE—and who also supports fact-based drug abuse prevention—that is a depressing answer. Any public official who mentions DARE in 2016 is profoundly out of touch with the current conversation about drug abuse prevention, racial inequities, criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, the opioid epidemic, and cannabis legalization.

That’s the problem with Hillary Clinton’s position on cannabis legalization. It’s not so much a position as it is a set of archaic beliefs that were established in her mind in the early 1990s.

Her advisers seem to be aware of this but are unwilling to address it head-on.

Skirting the issue in an early debate

In late November 2015, the campaign team was drilling Clinton on the issues in anticipation of the Nov. 14 primary debate with Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley in Iowa. (This is exactly the kind of grinding preparation that would destroy Donald Trump in the general debates nearly a year later.) Three days before the debate, campaign adviser Ron Klain suggested doing debate drills with Clinton “where we isolate 8 high priority topics … and run them over and over until we are all happy where they stand.” Then they’d “give HRC an extended lunch break to study materials and for us to huddle on advice.”

Mandy Grunwald, the longtime Democratic operative, didn’t like HRC’s answers in certain areas. “I think the death penalty/marijuana/judicial reform cluster might need more help,” he wrote. Robert Barnett, a Washington DC lawyer and Clinton adviser, added a note about the Patriot Act, surveillance, and marijuana as issues that Sanders might raise and use to attack Clinton.

Guess what? The answers never got extra help. Sanders said he would “take marijuana out of the federal law as a crime and give states the freedom to go forward with legalizing marijuana.” Martin O’Malley boasted about his record of decriminalizing small amounts of cannabis as governor of Maryland. Clinton avoided the issue altogether.

Tell us what you really think

Her most complete answer came three months later, in February 2016, at a CNN Town Hall event with Sanders in New Hampshire. A medical marijuana patient named Chris Lopez asked Clinton what she’d do to decriminalize marijuana.

“You deserve answers about marijuana, and we deserve more treatment for people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol.”

“I will do a lot, Chris, because we have an opportunity to do much more with respect to research into marijuana, what it can do to help people with the kinds of conditions you’ve just briefly described,” Clinton said. “I want to move it from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II so we can begin to do more research.” (To give the candidate her due, I’m abridging her answer.)

“I have no doubt that there are very real benefits for people,” she added, before pivoting immediately to “talk about the addiction problem in New Hampshire.” It spiraled downward from there, into a world of destroyed lives, motherless children, and childless mothers. “You deserve answers about marijuana,” Clinton concludes, “and we deserve more treatment for people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol.”

Clinton’s answers on marijuana legalization stunk then, and they stink now. She’s a politician whose mind seems stuck in the early 1990s, when her husband’s presidential ambitions were nearly scuttled by the faint rumor that he once puffed on a joint while in college. If forced to confess her true feelings, I don’t think anybody would be shocked to hear her say she’d prefer to keep cannabis illegal, now and forever.

Times have changed. Scientific knowledge, social experience, and the position of the American public have all undergone profound transformations over the past 25 years. Clinton still has time to “evolve” on this issue, just as Barack Obama evolved on the subject of same-sex marriage. That evolution doesn’t happen on its own, though. It’s going to require a lot of hard work by a nation of advocates. And that work begins on November 9.

Lead Image: David Goldman/AP

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Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott
Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.
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