Questions For The Candidates On Marijuana Reform

[ Posted Wednesday, October 5th, 2016 – 16:55 UTC ]

There is a major political debate currently happening in many parts of this country, but the astonishing thing is that most politicians -- especially those on the national stage -- seem to want to pretend the debate doesn't even exist. We saw this previously on the issue of gay marriage, when even the Democratic candidates for president in 2008 wouldn't support the idea for fear of losing votes -- even though it was obviously the right thing to do. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would only support half-measures whose time had already passed, saying they were in favor of "civil unions," but that "marriage" was too sacred a word to use for these unions. That was only eight years ago, and the political shift since then has been monumental. These days, it would be hard for any Democrat to get elected who didn't wholeheartedly support marriage equality for all. The people led, and the leaders eventually followed.

The next issue where this is already happening is marijuana legal reform. The arc of history is clear, and it is bending in one obvious direction. But politicians from Hillary Clinton on down refuse to show more than lukewarm support for half-measures which are already outdated. This is nothing short of political cowardice. Hillary Clinton is a special case, because her husband was the first United States president to admit smoking marijuana, although even this admission was hedged in lawyerly fudging ("I didn't inhale"). But that was almost 25 years ago, and in the meantime public opinion has shifted dramatically.

On Hillary Clinton's campaign website there are only a few desultory mentions of marijuana legal reform. Clinton, to her credit, says she is for letting the states be laboratories of democracy (without specifying what exactly this means), and for rescheduling marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II. The only time she's been asked about marijuana, at a primary debate, she responded that she was willing to let further studies of medical marijuana happen. This is simply not enough, though. Further studies? Half of the United States have already legalized medical marijuana. Half. It's not an issue that's even really up for debate anymore -- politically akin to civil unions in 2008, in fact. And yet Clinton can't even come out in full support of medicinal marijuana -- she's content to just "further study" the issue for now. This is not leadership, folks.

This November, citizens of at least five states will be voting on legalizing recreational use of marijuana by adults, and the polls now indicate that all five ballot measures may win. Four states and Washington D.C. have already legalized recreational use, meaning we could have a total of nine states next year where marijuana is fully legal for anyone of age to consume without fear of being arrested or having their lives ruined by the Draconian drug laws which have outlawed marijuana for the past century. These states are in open rebellion against federal law on the matter, it bears pointing out. Federal law is unequivocal: marijuana is a dangerous illegal drug that has no medical use and is prohibited everywhere in the country, period. Federal law trumps state law, so any of the state-level experiments could be overturned by the federal courts at any time -- if federal law does not change to accommodate them, that is. All it would take would be a drug-warrior president who wanted to continue fighting the futile federal War On Weed.

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, doesn't much seem like an extreme drug warrior. I doubt he'd go after Colorado and all the other legal recreational marijuana states. But this wasn't true for all the candidates on the Republican side this year -- Chris Christie even explicitly said he'd crack down on Colorado during a primary debate. As things stand right now, legal marijuana is in limbo, subject to the whims of whoever sits in the Oval Office (and whoever is running the Justice Department). That is what needs to fundamentally change. This limbo has gone on long enough. Luckily enough, these changes can largely take place without the input of Congress (where the political cowardice might be too overwhelming).

These changes must be sweeping and absolute, not half-measures. Even Clinton's timid support for rescheduling marijuana wouldn't make a bit of difference in the states with legalized recreational usage. It might make it easier for state-legal medicinal marijuana to coexist with federal law, but it wouldn't do a thing for recreational use.

There really is only one possible answer, and that is that the federal government is going to have to completely toss in the towel on the War On Weed. The Catch-22 nature of federal marijuana laws has to end. The states have led, and the federal government needs to admit that it has completely lost all control of the way the public debate is now heading. This will happen sooner or later, but there's an excellent chance it'll happen during the next president's term in office, which is why some leadership now on the issue would be sorely welcome.

There are several concrete steps that the federal government must take to dismantle the anachronistic War On Weed. The first and biggest would be for the president to announce that the federal government was done with its pointless stance that has been frozen in time since roughly the 1980s, and that individual states would now be free to make their own decisions on marijuana sales. States could continue banning sales altogether, states could allow medical use, or states could allow any adult to grow, sell, buy, and consume marijuana to their heart's content. But the federal government wouldn't interfere at all. That is the leadership that is needed on the issue. Punt the issue to the states, and get out of the enforcement business altogether.

Marijuana needs to not just be rescheduled, but rather descheduled -- taken off the list of "controlled substances" for good. Marijuana possession or use would no longer be illegal under federal law. Regulation of marijuana needs to be taken away from the Drug Enforcement Agency entirely and handed over to the agency which currently regulates alcohol and tobacco. All onerous restrictions on medical research need to be abolished completely. Furthermore, both banking and tax law need to be reformed to treat marijuana businesses like any other business in America instead of as major drug traffickers, as they are today (even in states that have legalized such businesses). And finally, individual possession of marijuana should be universally legal, even in states that don't allow sales. This would allow people to travel freely with marijuana in their vehicle -- in exactly the same fashion that people today can legally drive through a "dry" county with an unopened bottle of alcohol in their car, without fear of arrest.

That is where America is heading, as evidenced by the popularity of recreational legalization on ballot measures so far. This November, California may legalize recreational use, which would mean over ten percent of the country's population (over 30 million people) would suddenly become the biggest legal marijuana marketplace in the country. Maintaining the federal fiction that marijuana is still illegal is going to be hard to do when almost 20 percent of the states are blatantly ignoring this law (assuming it passes in all five states).

This is where the lack of political leadership will become most apparent. For almost the entire election season, all the presidential candidates have (for the most part) not even been asked by journalists where they stand on one of the fastest-moving political issues this year. That is a failure by both the media and by the cowardly politicians afraid of losing some votes by taking a clear stand. The transition from the War On Weed to a sane approach towards regulating marijuana is going to happen eventually, but the next president will have an enormous influence on how smooth (or bumpy) this transition will be -- and how fast it will happen. This is precisely why they need to be specifically asked about it now.

This Sunday night will be the only presidential debate where normal people will get the chance to pose questions to the two remaining candidates. I am hoping at least one voter will ask for clear details on what the candidates would do as president on federal marijuana legal reform. And I don't mean just a generic, gauzy question on medicinal marijuana, either. If I were sitting in that audience, here are the questions I would ask:

"Given that, after November's election, nine states may have legalized recreational adult usage of marijuana, would you recognize this new reality by not just rescheduling marijuana -- which would still leave recreational use federally illegal -- but by descheduling it altogether and handing off all federal marijuana regulation to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, where it really belongs? Furthermore, would you support changing the tax code and federal banking regulations so that state-legal marijuana businesses can freely operate without fear of being federally prosecuted as major drug traffickers?"

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


18 Comments on “Questions For The Candidates On Marijuana Reform”

  1. [1] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    What are you smoking? Nobody will be allowed to ask those questions, and even if they did, they would definitely not be answered.

  2. [2] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    (D)s and (R)s are awfully similar where the War On Some Drugs is concerned. They love their black hole wars. I'm not optimistic at all. The recent DEA move to prohibit kratom is just more perpetual, expensive, counter-productive war on Americans. If not for ballot initiatives, nothing would change.

  3. [3] 
    altohone wrote:

    Hey CW

    Hillary has received large sums of money from all the corporate interests who profit from the war on weed and from the interests who view weed as a competitor or threat to their profits.

    If five more states go recreational, maybe combined they'll have enough money to buy her off for the 2020 election?
    Of course, that's assuming that corporate interests who will funnel the money to Repubs don't take over the industry by buying off politicians to regulate away competition... or haven't you noticed the Big Money investors elbowing their way in already?

    Or, maybe Dems will stop voting against their interests and Hillary will face a challenger in the primaries who isn't a Wall Street coddling corporatist warmonger and war on drugs proponent?

    Of course, by then she will have loaded up the Supreme Court with neoliberal corporatists who will undermine almost everything Dems claim to stand for... but, hey, at least they'll probably keep abortion legal and available in blue states and a smattering of big cities.


  4. [4] 
    neilm wrote:

    The higher level point here is that the party that actually gets ahead of, or even just keeps up with, the hoi polloi just maybe could see some increase in popularity.

    What a concept.

    Brilliant column CW.


  5. [5] 
    neilm wrote:

    (D)s and (R)s are awfully similar where the War On Some Drugs is concerned. They love their black hole wars.

    I don't think it is love of internal 'wars' but fear of offending anybody just before an election that is driving the cautious policies of particularly Hillary. Trump is an odd beast, he is against drugs of all types for personal reasons (his older brother died of alcoholism and that is said to have deeply affected him).

    Bernie was the 'tell it like it is' candidate, and he lost pretty convincingly in the primary to 'safe Hillary'.

  6. [6] 
    altohone wrote:


    "I don't think it is love of internal 'wars' but fear of offending anybody just before an election that is driving the cautious policies of particularly Hillary"

    I take it by "anybody" you mean her donors... because the polling is clear that the majority of the country... and particularly Dems and Indies where polling numbers are much higher... would be supportive and motivated, not offended.

    Throw in the fact that 3 of the recreational/medical ballot initiatives are taking place in crucial swing states, and that her inaction will depress voter turnout and even cost her votes due to support for them by both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, and you'd have to conclude that catering to the minority of voters and clinging to the status quo is actually the politically risky path.

    Voters may regret assuming Hillary is just being "cautious" when the evidence suggests she is actually a combatant on the wrong side in the war on weed.


  7. [7] 
    altohone wrote:

    Hey CW and fans of the Democratic machine or law enforcement

    Speaking of the war on drugs...
    If you want to climb out of the comfortable bubble so many enjoy, check out the 4 part series-

    "Code of Silence Part 1
    In the Chicago Police Department, If the Bosses Say It Didn’t Happen, It Didn’t Happen"

    by Jamie Kalven

    It's a rather disturbing reality about the nature of state and federal "law enforcement" with a prominent role for Hillary's buddy Rahm "fuck the left" Emmanuel.

    Spoiler alert- the establishment bad guys win.
    But if any of you are wondering why Chicago has paid out $640,000,000 in settlements, the series lays out many of the facts in a gripping true story.


  8. [8] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    neilm [5],

    "I don't think it is love of internal 'wars' but fear of offending anybody just before an election that is driving the cautious policies"

    You're probably right. It's the people profiting from the wars who love them. The politicians just follow their orders and, lucky for them, there's always an election on the horizon, so they can use that as an excuse to continue their war on Americans. "We're not corrupt. We're spineless." makes a great sales pitch and it doesn't even sound like a lie.

  9. [9] 
    neilm wrote:

    "In its founding statement, The Atlantic promised that it would be “the organ of no party or clique,” and our interest here is not to advance the prospects of the Democratic Party, nor to damage those of the Republican Party. If Hillary Clinton were facing Mitt Romney, or John McCain, or George W. Bush, or, for that matter, any of the leading candidates Trump vanquished in the Republican primaries, we would not have contemplated making this endorsement. We believe in American democracy, in which individuals from various parties of different ideological stripes can advance their ideas and compete for the affection of voters. But Trump is not a man of ideas. He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent."

    For only the third time in its history, The Atlantic has endorsed a candidate for president.

    1860 Lincoln (anti-slavery)
    1964 Johnson due to Goldwater's anti-Civil Rights stance
    2016 Clinton due to Trump's unsuitability

  10. [10] 
    altohone wrote:




  11. [11] 
    neilm wrote:

    Altohone [6]

    I don't think it is Clinton's donors in this case, but the simple political calculation that she isn't going to get more votes by leading on this issue when Trump isn't making it an issue. Don't get me wrong, Clinton is swayed by money like any other politician when it is convenient.

  12. [12] 
    altohone wrote:


    Yup. Fine with torture and war crimes... xenophobia, sexism, ignorance OR lying...

    ...but xenophobic, sexist, ignorant liars... no way.

    A principled stand.

    American democracy of all ideological stripes.


  13. [13] 
    altohone wrote:


    A simple political calculation that ignores an unenthused electorate, swing state ballot measures, polling, and third parties currently pulling in a combined 15%?
    Whatever you need to tell yourself.
    Do you think she did the math on a cocktail napkin?

    Did you compare the list of those funding the opposition to legalization to Hillary's donor list?

    Are you aware that her "evolution" on rescheduling keeps it a federal crime on par with cocaine?


  14. [14] 
    neilm wrote:

    One of today's "On Point" podcasts ( covers "Pot on the Ballot". It is worth a listen.

    The polling for initiatives is fairly unreliable, and does not break down party lines. It makes complete political sense for a presidential candidate to avoid a contentious issue, especially when it is an issue that the pro-camp may support with less passion than the anti-camp.

    I have a friend in Colorado who is very liberal on all social issues. Her oldest daughter started drinking and smoking weed at high school, then progressed on to other drugs and is only just coming out the other side, albeit with VD, no high school diploma, a daily struggle against alcoholism and a criminal record. She is not 21 yet.

    Needless to say, my friend is not a fan of Colorado's legalization. There are many people who would be glad to have their kids survive this at all, so she thinks she is lucky in many respects.

    My friend knows that weed was not the reason her daughter ended up where she did, but she sees it as a contributing factor.

    Why would Clinton lose a guaranteed vote in Colorado because she wants to lead on marijuana legalization?

    "Do you think she did the math on a cocktail napkin?"

    No, I think Clinton knows more stories like my friend's than I do. Maybe more than you do to?

  15. [15] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    "my friend is not a fan of Colorado's legalization"

    Your friend does not sound like a guaranteed vote if that's all it would take to un-guarantee it. The reality is that pot was available to her daughter regardless of its legal status. That it's legal only means that there's one less "crime" for her daughter to be charged with. She should be legalization's biggest fan.

  16. [16] 
    neilm wrote:

    I'll give her your feedback. He I'm sure it will work.

  17. [17] 
    altohone wrote:


    It's still illegal for under 18 in CO.
    But it's now regulated in a manner that actually reduces access for kids by limiting the black market.

    The gateway drug myth you perpetuate and then try to downplay by claiming it was "only a factor" is the kind of propaganda the drug warriors have been disseminating for decades.

    The harm from criminalization has been enormous, and if Hillary is basing her position on anecdotal claims rather than the evidence, she is not showing her supposed experience.

    Likewise, risking more votes than she retains is the math problem... it is not as you present it.
    You're sweeping it under the rug.


  18. [18] 
    John From Censornati wrote:

    neilm [16],

    "I'm sure it will work."

    Whatever that's supposed to mean. I didn't ask you to do or try anything, but I will say that your friend sounds less liberal all the time. She's apparently immune to logic and favors prohibiting adults from using THC legally because her daughter chose to use it illegally (along with committing various other illegal acts). Since her underage daughter is also an alcoholic, is mom in favor of alcohol prohibition too? I'm going to guess no. She sounds like the flip side of conservative homophobes who see the light when their kids turn out to be gay.

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