In Election, Cannabis World Doesn’t Like Its Choices

By Hilary Corrigan
Aug 6, 2020
Kbeis (Getty Images)

Without the possibility of a friend in the White House, some in the cannabis community are calling more loudly to legalize.

Neither President Donald Trump nor his presumptive Democratic challenger Joe Biden support legalizing cannabis. As the campaign enters the final stretch and the pandemic, the struggling economy and a referendum on Trump’s presidency take the spotlight, cannabis activists want the candidates to know the legalization push will continue.

The cannabis world probably tilts Democratic, though Biden, almost alone among Democratic primary contenders, has refused to endorse legalization. With so much else at stake, that position may get more of a pass from cannabis activists than it would in other elections. 

Steve DeAngelo, the long-time cannabis activist and entrepreneur who co-founded Oakland-based dispensary chain Harborside, doesn’t want to see that happen. DeAngelo calls cannabis a valuable medicine and its legalization a necessary tool in racial justice. In a Facebook video, he urges the “cannabis tribe” to push Biden’s campaign to embrace legalization, even if they are already more likely to vote for him.

DeAngelo doesn’t expect Biden to willingly support legalization, and in an interview, called it “tragic” that he’s the party’s nominee. But “we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the country to get him to change,” DeAngelo said.

Republicans’ cold shoulder

Though the cannabis world doesn’t love Biden or Trump, the candidates’ stances on cannabis differ. 

According to Biden’s campaign website, he supports decriminalization and expunging prior cannabis use convictions. The site says he will support legalizing cannabis for medical purposes, leave REC decisions up to states, and reclassify it as a schedule II controlled substance to allow researchers to study it.

Trump’s campaign website does not appear to include positions on cannabis. As support for legalization has grown among Republicans, his administration has largely maintained the Obama administration’s policy of benign neglect, even as more legal markets make that policy less tenable. 

In general, the Republican Party hasn’t focused or been very vocal on cannabis policy reform, said Mason Tvert, a partner with VS Strategies, the consulting affiliate of cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP. While there are exceptions, and cannabis banking reform passed the U.S. House of Representatives with bi-partisan support, the perception is Democrats are more closely aligned with industry priorities.

For that reason, industry insiders are keeping a close eye on the Senate. KushCo CEO Nick Kovacevich recently wrote that control of the upper chamber matters most to the industry since Republicans there have “repeatedly strangled” reform.   

Republicans’ reticence is most apparent in the Colorado Senate race. Sen. Cory Gardner (R) initially opposed legalization but has come to embrace it. He sought to advance SAFE Banking legislation. He also co-sponsored, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a bill to protect state-legal REC and MED activity. 

Gardner faces a tough re-election campaign against former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who oversaw Colorado’s first-in-the-nation REC legalization and has a chilly relationship with cannabis interests. Nonetheless, despite Gardner’s efforts, banking reform remains stalled at the Senate banking committee chaired by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Id.).

“This has never been a major issue for Republicans,” Tvert said. “It would certainly benefit them.”

Biden’s “archaic view”

The GOP may remain, to the weed world, inexplicably cold to cannabis. But the community also has a grudge against Biden.

In his Facebook video, DeAngelo blasts Biden as “one of the primary architects of the war on drugs,” who helped create mass incarceration in the U.S. He slams Biden for maintaining an “archaic” position even after a recent joint task force with pro-legalization Sen. Bernie Sanders. He urges those considering voting for Biden to “roar like the lion of zion”—with emails, calls and visits to Biden’s campaign—in an effort to shift the candidate’s position.

“It’s really important to let these campaigns know that your vote could turn on the cannabis issue,” DeAngelo said of voters during an interview.

DeAngelo discounts Biden’s federal decriminalization talk as a smokescreen, saying it only applies to a small number of misdemeanors. He also suggests Biden’s proposal to reschedule cannabis could hand the industry over to pharmaceutical companies.

‘Window to the heart of the country’

DeAngelo knows most of the people he considers cannabis voters aren’t inclined to vote for Trump. But he argues Biden could win millions of voters by embracing legalization. He pointed to the closeness of the 2016 presidential election and recalled the Democratic Party’s over-confidence in that race. He wonders if Biden’s current position on cannabis could cost him the election.

“It’s bad for the Democratic Party,” he said. “It’s a stupid, wrong-headed position.”

With all of the recent activism, this current political time offers a “rare moment” of true progressive change that DeAngelo says he’s worked toward his whole life. 

“Every now and then, windows to the heart of this country open up,” he said. “We need to make the most of it.”

And to find any racial justice, the country must dismantle cannabis laws—all of which were enacted as a method of racial control, he said. “Cannabis justice translates into racial justice.”

Weed the vote

The cannabis activist community continues to push for legalization at state and local levels, too.

NORML recently launched a petition calling for the Trump and Biden campaigns to support ending prohibition. It cites Gallup poll data that 67% of Americans support legalization. 

“We’d love for either or both of them to fall in line with the majority of the American people,” NORML political director Justin Strekal said.

This week, Marijuana Policy Project also called for cannabis reforms from the presidential candidates.

Strekal says having a state cannabis initiative on the ballot increases voter turnout, and points to Wisconsin and Utah elections in 2018 as examples. This year, he expects to see a similar impact in Arizona and Montana, where REC is likely to be on the ballot. Both states have closely watched Senate races and Arizona is a battleground in the presidential election. 

NORML plans to make endorsements of candidates over the coming weeks and has launched new efforts meant to help voters. Earlier this year, NORML launched Smoke the Vote, a database of information on candidates’ positions and other cannabis-related information. And with Headcount’s Cannabis Voter Project, the group just released a new tool—a “one-stop shop” where people can register to vote, check that their registrations are current, find polling locations and request absentee ballots.

NORML aims to help elect the most pro-marijuana state legislatures and Congress “that this country has ever seen,” Strekal said.

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