Presidential Candidates, the Election, and Drug Policy

The 2020 candidates so far are showing a range of opinions on drugs.

Posted May 07, 2019

There will probably not be elections as contentious as the one we had in 2016 and the one we're about to have soon in 2020 for quite some time. Obviously, there are myriad topics that have become rallying cries for both sides: gun control/rights, immigration, and the role of America in the world. But drug policy has also been a major political issue in this country and one that has gone through its own whiplash in the past few administrations.

So, as the presidential campaigning frenzy begins, I'd like to delve deeper into the main contenders at the moment and see what their drug policies look like. Personally, I stand for any candidate that upholds non-draconian policies such as decriminalization, legalization and compassionate care for those who struggle with mental health and addictions.

Why? Because the research tells us that these policies work. Harm reduction minimizes fatal overdoses, decreases the rates of infectious diseases (such as HIV and hepatitis) and keeps people with an addiction out of jail by channeling them into treatment programs instead.

"The so called War on Drugs has not succeeded in making significant reductions in drug use, drug arrests or violence. We are pouring huge amounts of our public resources into this current effort that are bleeding our public treasury and unnecessarily undermining human potential."- Cory Booker

I recently spoke with Maia Szalavitz a harm reduction advocate to find out what she’d like to see in a presidential candidate when it comes to drug policy. This is what she proposed:

  • Decriminalize possession of substances
  • Legalize marijuana
  • Model effective ways of non-commercial distribution of other substances like psychedelics in order to guide better policy
  • Expunge all the criminal records of people who have been affected by the war on drugs
  • Use the money being spent to criminalize drug offenders to pay for actual evidence-based treatment that is voluntary, compassionate, caring, and supportive
  • Extend Harm Reduction services like needle exchange and safe injection sites
  • Implement universal health care
  • And while we are at it… let’s implement a universal basic income

These are big statements, but they are shared beliefs among harm reductionist experts who are making a big difference in the field, at ground level. The one thing most experts agree on is the decriminalization of drugs.

Benefits of legalization/decriminalization

Why should we make drugs legal? Because of the obvious benefits not only on an individual level but also at a familial, community and state level. Here are the reasons why drugs, marijuana in particular, should be legalized and other drugs decriminalized across the United States:

  • Potential tax revenues.  Colorado and Washington were the first two U.S. states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. In 2017, those states collected nearly $250 million and $320 million respectively in cannabis-related taxes and fees. Economically, it’s a win-win!
  • Job creation. The University of Illinois has found that the taxation and regulation of cannabis have the potential to create up to 24,000 new jobs and bring in over $500 million in new revenue Illinois alone. There is potential here for the cannabis industry to create in excess of 300,000 new jobs by 2020
  • Reducing mass incarceration. In the United States, approximately 1.5 million people are arrested annually due to drug offenses. Of those, 80% are detained for possession. If we stopped arresting people in possession of a personal drug stash, then we could channel these people into drug rehabilitation programs and provide mental health assistance. We could help people struggling with an addiction, rather than punishing them. Not to mention, we’d save a hell of a lot of money by not keeping people in jail who don’t need to be there. 
  • Reduce opioid use. This may sound counterintuitive, but hear me out. There’s emerging research that suggests that medical marijuana can be used to treat opioid addiction. Is it just substituting one drug for another? No! It’s used as a treatment medication to help people in recovery by minimizing withdrawals and the risks associated with accessing drugs off the street.  

Where can you put your vote for harm reduction?

The 2020 presidential campaign will see the first presidential race in which every candidate (at least so far) favors some path to marijuana legalization. All 12 official Democratic candidates, as well as the potential Republican hopeful and former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld, told the Globe they now support full nationwide marijuana legalization.

“Millions of Americans’ lives have been devastated because of our broken marijuana policies, especially in communities of color and low-income communities.” - Senator Gillibrand.

And it’s about time! When two in three Americans support legalizing cannabis, it’s about time our politicians listen. While there may be potential harms of marijuana use, we do need more research and legalization would provide this opportunity. 

Now let's check in on some of the most prominent candidates and what their stance on legalization and drug policy is in general:

1. The Incumbent: Donald Trump (R)

Before he was elected, Donald Trump proposed that marijuana legalization is left up to the states. However, since becoming president, the Trump administration has considered strengthening their anti-cannabis enforcement on a nation-wide level. 

And then there's the wall which he says he believes will stop the "tremendous amounts of drugs flowing into our country, much of it coming from the southern border.”

The problem with this stance is that most drugs that come into the US come through legal ports of entry, not the illegal border crossings that a wall would aim to stop. And to the extent that some drugs do come through illegal crossings, the people trafficking these substances have long proved adept at overcoming barriers, even using submarines and drones.

Meanwhile, there are areas in drug policy that really could use the money, particularly drug addiction treatment. As the country is ravaged by an opioid epidemic linked to tens of thousands of deaths each year, experts have called for tens of billions of dollars in spending to make treatment far more accessible.

Trump has declared an emergency for the opioid crisis, but he has not allocated any money as a result. Instead, his focus is on border-security and building a ‘wall’ rather than addressing the underlying issues of addiction and providing adequate treatment options for Americans. 

2. Kamala Harris (D)

“Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?” - Kamala Harris on whether or not she's inhaled.

Harris has a new book in which she advocates for clearing the criminal records for people convicted of non-violent marijuana offenses, as well as for legalizing the drug.
While Kamala Harris admits she both smoked marijuana and inhaled it in the past, she wasn't always an advocate for legalization. We’ve seen Harris jump on the bandwagon of decriminalization only once the public support reached a ‘safe’ level.

3. Elizabeth Warren (D)

Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren believes cannabis should be legalized across the United States. Warren is one of the lead sponsors of the STATES Act, which protects states in which marijuana is legal from federal interference. Cannabis is still illegal on the federal level. 

Warren has also signed onto several major drug policy reform bills, including the Marijuana Justice Act, which is a revolutionary legislation proposal that would economically punish states that do not legalize cannabis and continue to incarcerate or arrest people for cannabis-related offenses. 

4. Beto O'Rourke (D)

Despite coming from the conservative state of Texas, which is largely against the legalization of cannabis, O’Rourke is an advocate for the cannabis reform. He has voted for several legislative acts that aim to expand medical marijuana use and protect states from federal interference. He recently called for the legalization of cannabis at a federal-level and he also advocates for people who have been incarcerated for cannabis possession to have their records removed. 

O’Rourke is also the lead sponsor of a bill that, if passed, would rescind the law that financially penalizes highway funding for states that don’t automatically suspend drivers licenses for people convicted of drug offenses. Such laws make it far harder for those convicted of drug offenses to get back on their feet and maintain work or educational pursuits.

5. Bernie Sanders (D)

Since 1995, Bernie Sanders has advocated for cannabis reform and has been one of the most vocal advocates of the legalization of cannabis. Four years ago, he filed the first bill in Senate to end cannabis prohibition, he signed onto Cory Booker's Marijuana Justice Act (see below) and called for de-scheduling the drug and removing it from the list of controlled substances. He also wants to make it easier for legal marijuana businesses to operate bank accounts which led him to demand a banking reform. This guy was a harm reduction advocate long before other candidates were jumping on the bandwagon.

6. Kristin Gillibrand (D)

Kristin Gillibrand is a supporter of the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and punish states that enforce marijuana laws disproportionately against people of color.

She also co-sponsored legislation designed to protect medical marijuana states from federal interference, make it easier to conduct research on cannabis and legalize industrial hemp. Another research-related bill she co-sponsored would encourage the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to study how marijuana can treat specific conditions mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gillibrand has signed her name to several key pieces of marijuana reform legislation, including Booker's Marijuana Justice Act. While she’s one of the liberal senators, she has been outspoken about the effects of drug war policy and the racial inequities in the criminal justice system, even prior to announcing her candidacy.

7. Cory Booker (D)

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has made legalization a core part of his presidential campaign, said his position has much more to do with addressing racial disparities in policing than it does with freedom for recreational use.

In 2017, Booker authored the Marijuana Reform Act, a multi-factored approach which expunges criminal records for those with cannabis-related offenses, punishing the states who target groups of people (particularly those of color) and legalizing cannabis at a federal level.  This means that people who are currently serving federal sentences for cannabis-related offenses could, in theory, be offered a lighter sentence.

Booker has a strong record on legalization. In 2012 when he was a New Jersey mayor he was a vocal advocate for marijuana legalization. He accused the federal government of wasting public resources and undermining people with addiction through punishment rather than treatment.  

Not so final words…

As I've said for over a decade, criminalizing drugs does little if anything to help the drug problem we have in this country—if this is where drug reform ends.

I am all for candidates making this part of the national election-related discourse, and I hope that we can move beyond this discussion in this presidential cycle. We need a strong candidate who understands not only the need for legal reform, but also the treatment and prevention reform that would allow the funds, and humans resource hours, to get refocused on efforts that can actually bear fruit.

Want to weigh in on the matter? Join the IGNTD community as we love to hear what you think should be on the presidential candidate agenda!