The dust has finally settled in the 2020 Democratic primary. A contest that once had over 20 candidates—including two different mayors of New York City—effectively ended April 8, when Bernie Sanders announced he was suspending his campaign. Five days later, Sanders endorsed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, now the presumptive Democratic nominee for November’s election.
For better or worse, the presidential race is down to Trump vs. Biden. What does this mean for the future of cannabis, and how will that affect the election? Where does the coronavirus fit into the picture?
We spoke to industry experts and influencers to get their predictions on cannabis’ role in what may be the most important election in a generation.
Between a Demagogue and a Hard Place
First, to state the obvious: This isn’t a great outcome for marijuana advocates. Of the major candidates in the Democratic race, Biden was the only besides Michael Bloomberg not to support the removal of cannabis from the DEA’s list of controlled substances. As recently as November 2019, Biden questioned whether marijuana was a gateway drug—though he has since denied believing that myth.
As for Trump, his wishy-washy views on cannabis have been well-documented over the years of his campaign and presidency. If it’s possible to glean a coherent message from The Donald’s past statements, we’d guess he’s okay with medical but unsure about federal legalization. But in a bad sign for the industry, the latest addition to the rotating band of charlatans and bucket-climbing crabs he calls advisors is press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who once penned an op-ed claiming America’s youth was being “martyred” by legalization in Colorado.
Will Covid-19 be a Boon for the Industry?
If the most unpredictable president in history wasn’t enough of a wildcard for the future of cannabis, the novel coronavirus has kicked the uncertainty up a notch. Thousands of Americans have died and over 22 million have filed for unemployment so far. Experts believe the worst of the economic fallout is yet to come. With a few weeks of press conferences and state lockdowns, the fate of legal cannabis went from one of the biggest question marks of this year to one of many big question marks.
Meanwhile, medical and recreational cannabis businesses in every state except Massachusetts have been deemed essential and/or allowed to operate. Some are now limited to delivery or curbside service and must tightly control in-store foot traffic, but unlike millions of restaurants, bars and coffee shops, most are still open.
Morgan Fox, Media Relations Director for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), said via email that even before the coronavirus, marijuana was getting more interest than ever before in this election cycle.
“We are also seeing that the public profile for cannabis is growing as it helps maintain consistent healthcare access during the present public health crisis,” said Fox in an email to High Times.
“I would expect cannabis policy to get a lot more attention before the election, as well as to see some evolution in the candidates’ positions,” he continued.
You don’t need to be an industry insider to realize that legalization is popular. Pew reported this past November that 67% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, a new record. In a severely wounded economy where cannabis is already a fast-selling essential item, could the creation of a national market act as a salve to stop the bleeding? CEOs of weed conglomerates think so, as do policy experts in the industry.
“People push winning policies, not candidates,” said Maritza Perez, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, when asked about the remaining two presidential candidates’ lukewarm positions on cannabis.
“People across demographic groups and ideological beliefs support marijuana legalization, meaning that it’s only a matter of time before legal marijuana becomes the law of the land, despite who is in the White House,” she added.
Fox agreed: “Given the overwhelming support nationally for making cannabis legal for adults, anyone who embraces that position will see an increase in support.”
In an era of hyperpartisanship where a national consensus is nearly impossible, supporting legalization seems like an easy popularity hack for candidates who could both use the help.
But there’s a disconnect between that optimism and the public stances of the two men running for president, especially Biden—whose foundational role in creating some of the most devastating drug laws in American history has been well-documented in the media.
Hey Joe, Where You Going With That…Cannabis Policy?
If legalization is a safe bet for persuading a national electorate, it’s a slam dunk on the left. Given the current Grand Canyon-esque gulf between the moderate and super-liberal factions of the Democratic party, logic might lead us to project that any candidate looking to bridge the gap could use cannabis as a unifying issue.
So far, signs don’t point to Biden adopting that approach. Though Sen. Sanders recently announced the formation of a working group with the former VP on a number of important policy issues, marijuana legalization was not included. Even if Biden does come around on cannabis, not everyone is in a rush to trust someone who is commonly referred to as the “architect” of America’s failed drug war.
“I’d say look at his past to know where he’s going,” said Kia Jackson, founder of the Black Experience in Cannabis, the first Congressional event to highlight the struggles of people of color in hemp and cannabis. “If he was a major proponent for the War on Drugs for thirty years, what will make him so different now? Even his language [now] is not very inclusive,” she said.
“I think we can expect a lot of pressure on Biden to improve his policy stance on cannabis,” predicted Fox when prompted about the presumptive Democratic nominee, “particularly given the increasing recognition of cannabis.”
Unprecedented times mean an unprecedented election. Could it lead to another new precedent—legal cannabis? Much has changed recently, but one thing remains the same: the answer to that question is largely controlled by white men in their 70s.