The Next Democratic President Will Legalize Weed

The legal cannabis bandwagon is picking up speed for 2020.
Gillbrand, Booker, and Sanders, photos by Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty, Win McNamee/Getty,  Duane Prokop/Getty for MoveOn.org

On Wednesday, Kirsten Gillibrand declared her support for legalizing weed in America. By signing on to a bill authored by her Senate colleague Cory Booker that would end federal pot prohibition, the New Yorker became the latest of several presumed Democratic 2020 presidential candidates (including Booker) to go at least partially green. Bernie Sanders and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy are down with full legalization, Elizabeth Warren is a strong supporter of medical marijuana and wants the Massachusetts weed market regulated, and California Senator Kamala Harris favors decriminalization (which is a step more timid than legalization).


Joe Biden, who appears to be styling himself as an anti-populist, has a history of being fairly anti-weed, as does Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. But most notable Democrats jockeying to replace Donald Trump realize the path to the White House involves coming out strongly in favor of legal pot.

There are plenty of good debates to be had about how marijuana should be regulated and what should be done with past offenders (among other issues). But legalizing cannabis is a popular idea that would almost certainly boost tax revenue nationally and help reform a broken criminal justice system. The problem is that even though 72 percent of Democrats supported legal weed in an October Gallup poll, the party's leaders have been maddeningly cautious about simply declaring prohibition to be a failed policy. Though the Democrats' 2016 platform included a plank about marijuana reform, it stopped well short of Booker's bill, which would remove the drug from the DEA's list of controlled substances entirely and even attempt to repair damage wrought (especially on communities of color) by the war on weed. Hillary Clinton, for her part, was characteristically cagey on the subject and indicated she was against legal weed as recently as 2014.

But if the Democratic Party frustrates drug reform activists and others who just want it to be legal already (for fuck's sake), the Republican Party is a total dead end—Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in particular, stands out as a un-reconstituted drug warrior.


This has created a great opportunity for weed legalization to become reality sooner than you might think. As Democratic 2020 hopefuls consider ways to distinguish themselves in what will be a crowded field of anti-Trump Resisters, it seems likely that signing onto Booker's bill or a similar policy will be an easy way to attract the progressive base. (It's particularly meaningful that Gillibrand, who has great political instincts, is backing it.) As the primary season actually begins, candidates will have to defend their stances, past and present, on weed, and the more hesitant ones will likely find themselves pilloried by an activist corps that has no time for squishy centrism in the time of Trump.

The great thing about legal weed, from a purely political perspective, is that it actually isn't all that controversial. A slim majority of Republicans support it, according to that same Gallup poll, and the states are moving toward legalization despite opposition from the Trump administration. Taxing and regulating pot seems less like Medicare for all (a divisive, partisan issue) and more like gay marriage—a proposition that once seemed radical but is rapidly becoming mainstream.

A president Sanders or Booker or Gillibrand would not be able to unilaterally legalize weed, of course. There would no doubt be opposition to the proposal in Congress among more moderate Democrats. Federal legalization would mean not just beating back the anti-weed lobby but also sorting out a number of issues around permitting, safety, taxes, and other logistical matters. It would especially be complicated if the Senate filibuster remained intact and Democrats had to court Republicans to get to the required 60 votes.

But some Republican politicians support legal weed, and if both the White House and popular opinion coalesced behind a proposal, it would be awfully hard to stop. The bottom line is it's looking increasingly likely that the next Democratic presidential nominee will favor legal cannabis—and might even be able to make it reality.

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