As everyone across the country casts their vote for the next President, there are also a handful of states voting on marijuana legalization. Five states are voting on whether to clear the drug for recreational use, and an additional four are deciding on legalizing medical use. Federally, however, marijuana remains strictly illegal, despite the fact that most Americans support the end of prohibition.
Earlier this year, the DEA declined to remove cannabis from the list of schedule one drugs, maintaining that cannabis has no medical value and a high potential for abuse. In addition, President Obama has not made drug reform a priority in his administration, and in some cases authorized DEA to raid medical marijuana dispensaries in states where marijuana is legal. But perhaps our next leader could usher in an effort to align federal policy with that of the 24 states—and counting—where cannabis has been legalized.
We asked Ellen Komp, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)'s California chapter, what the results of the election will mean for weed. [Ed. note: NORML does not endorse political candidates.]
BROADLY: What would marijuana legalization look like under a Clinton presidency?
Ellen Komp: Well, both candidates have said that they are inclined to leave state programs alone and leave it up to states. They sort of, as many politicians do, say different things to different groups of people about legalization in general. [Hacked emails showed] Clinton said she was dead-set against legalization when she was speaking to a group of investors. In other places she's said different things.
Clinton has also called for more research, which is kind of a fall-back position. She has said that she would reschedule cannabis, removing it from the list of schedule one drugs, which could be very big as far as allowing that research. It would also just legitimize it for patients going forward, possibly even opening it up to insurance coverage and things like that. That would be a big step, and I have not heard Trump say that he was ready to do that.
What do we know about Trump's weed policy?
Under Trump, I think people are more worried are what his picks are going to be for various positions [in his administration]. For example, Chris Christie's name has been floated as an Attorney General candidate. Christie has been very vehement against medical marijuana, and of course the Attorney General sets the tone very much for how the Justice Department handles these things because we're still in a situation where marijuana is federally illegal. The Obama administration has had a hands-off policy in Colorado, Washington, and the subsequent legalization states, and has allowed them to flourish as long as they have protections against inter-state transfer and things like that. It's important that whoever is elected continues that policy. There's also the question of Supreme Court appointments. The judges they select might have to rule on a state's right to allow for the legalization of marijuana or medical marijuana.
We are getting a growing number of Republicans supporting marijuana, maybe because there's more money in it now or because of the Libertarian streak in the Republican party. I wouldn't say, though, that that's where Trump is coming from. He's coming more from the right wing side of the party that's morally opposed to legalization. [His Vice Presidential pick] Mike Pence has a very bad record on drug reform. Pence has said that we need to focus on reducing crime, not reducing penalties. Tim Kaine, the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, has said he would not vote to decriminalize marijuana, but he has also said he would respect states' rights on legalization measures. So he's better than Pence. NORML doesn't endorse candidates, but even if we could I don't think, honestly, that we'd endorse any one of these.
So it seems like everyone in the 2016 race is status quo on cannabis. Trump, however, has said a lot of things that makes me think he would be actively harmful to legalization efforts. Throughout his campaign that he would increase "law and order," which is basically code for mass incarceration policies, and also support stop and frisk. Do you think those policies—though he didn't mention them in reference to marijuana—would run contrary to ending the war on drugs?
Yes, his record is very Nixonian. Nixon very much used the drug war to round up "undesirables." One of the reasons people are pushing for Prop 64 in California, [which would legalize marijuana], is that it would hopefully end pretense stops [that allow police to search citizens because they] see or smell marijuana. Like stop-and-frisk, those stops predominately affect black and Latino people. I'm more encouraged by Clinton's rhetoric and the promises she's making to black and Latino communities about equal justice. The way marijuana prohibition has disproportionately impacted people of color is a big part of the injustice.
What's the most important thing that needs to happen for marijuana legalization to advance on a federal level?
If the Democrats win the Senate, we might start getting some hearings on pro-legalization bills. There have been several bills introduced in Congress, but the Republican leadership has blocked any hearings on them. We have gotten a few things through as budget riders, [like an amendment that would allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana] and, for the past three years, an amendment that denies DEA funds for enforcement against legal medical marijuana states. But they have to pass every year. We can't get a permanent bill because again we can't get a hearing. We have to start pushing Congress. A lot of people think that if California passes legalization, there may be upwards of a hundred congressional representatives that are from states where marijuana is legal. If they start feeling the pressure to follow the will of the people, we may start seeing some changes on the federal level, which ultimately is where things need to change for workplace rights as well as a lot of other aspects of this that are still hamstrung by federal policy.
All the federal government has to do is end its prohibition, which is unconstitutional in the first place. They pulled a sneaky maneuver to make marijuana quasi-illegal in the first place with the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. After the Tax Act got thrown out in a Supreme Court case brought by Timothy Leary in the early 70s, we got the 1970 Controlled Substances Act under Nixon that established the DEA, gave the DEA the right to schedule drugs, and all these powers to put down both the people using marijuana and, not coincidentally, people who were protesting against the war in Vietnam. Just like Trump, Nixon built a campaign around bringing back "law and order." It's a typical politician trick: Oh, there's a scary monster out there and I'm the one to combat it!