Democrats Embrace Legalization In 2020 Primaries

By Kelly Burch 03/07/19

A number of presidential hopefuls have been vocal about their experiences with marijuana and their desire to end its federal prohibition.

Cory Booker, a democrat running for president in 2020, discussing marijuana
Photo via YouTube

Just a few election cycles ago, presidential candidates had to carefully craft their answers when asked whether they had ever tried marijuana. Heading into the 2020 campaign, however, many prominent Democratic candidates are vocally supporting marijuana legalization at the federal level. 

Last week, U.S. Senator and presidential hopeful Cory Booker introduced legislation in the Senate that would legalize cannabis and expunge the records of people who have been convicted of federal marijuana-related expenses. Four other presidential candidates—Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—co-sponsored the bill. 

The movement also has momentum outside Congress. Former Texas congressman and likely candidate Beto O’Rourke sent an email to supporters this week announcing his support for changes to federal marijuana policy, according to Reuters

“We should end the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who were locked away for possessing it, ensuring that they can get work, finish their education, contribute to the greatness of this country,” O’Rourke wrote. 

Senator Kamala Harris opposed an effort to legalize cannabis in California in 2010. (A later measure legalized recreational cannabis in the state.) However, she recently joked about marijuana use, riffing on President Bill Clinton’s infamous remark during the 1992 election that he had smoked marijuana, but did not inhale. 

“I inhaled,” Harris said. “Half of my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?”

Bernie Sanders has said that he tried cannabis, but didn’t like it and “nearly coughed my brains out.” He added, “It didn’t do a whole lot for me.”  

Still, Sanders has been outspoken about the need to legalize cannabis. His home state of Vermont was the first in the nation to legalize cannabis through legislative action rather than a vote. 

Too many lives are being destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people get criminal records. You know why? Because they have smoked marijuana,” Sanders said this week. 

Another candidate, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, has been more cautious in his attitude toward marijuana reform. Despite the fact that he led a state that legalized marijuana early on, Hickenlooper has not called for federal legalization. However, he said that states should have the choice and federal banking laws need to change if that happens. 

Polls show that most Americans—of both parties—favor legalizing cannabis. Among Democrats, three-quarters of voters feel that federal prohibition has to end. This cultural shift likely explains the enthusiasm from candidates, said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). 

“The Democratic candidates are just acknowledging the practical and political reality—this is not only good policy, it’s good politics,” he said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.