As he weighs a potential run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is an outlier on one key issue as compared to Senate colleagues who have already declared their candidacies: Marijuana.
Brown’s consistent refusal to endorse legalizing cannabis also puts him at odds with his party’s voters.
Last week, five competing presidential candidates—Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—teamed up to introduce the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and punish states that have discriminatory enforcement of prohibition policies.
This week, Rep. Tusli Gabbard (D-HI), who is also seeking the party’s presidential nomination, filed a bill to deschedule marijuana so that states can set their own laws without federal interference.
Brown, on the other hand, hasn’t introduced or cosponsored a single marijuana reform bill during his quarter-century in Congress.
Last week, during a South Carolina leg of a multi-state tour the senator is undertaking as he considers entering the presidential race, Brown said he disagrees with his colleagues and would-be primary opponents about cannabis legalization.
“Cory is a good guy,” he said of Booker, who is the lead sponsor of the new congressional cannabis bill, according to a journalist who was in the room. “But I don’t go quite where he does.”
Last year, Brown told a Cleveland TV news station that he isn’t sure if marijuana is a gateway drug or not.
“States that have legalized marijuana, we’ll see what happens in those states,” he said. “If that means less addiction to more powerful drugs, or if it’s a gateway. And I don’t think we don’t know that yet.”
In 2015, Brown said that “there are far too many” unanswered questions about legalizing cannabis, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
“I have significant concerns about it,” he said of a ballot measure to end prohibition in Ohio. “It’s a step that we should take with great caution.”
In 1998, Brown voted for a House resolution “expressing the sense of Congress that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medicinal use.” The measure argued that “the ambiguous cultural messages about marijuana use are contributing to a growing acceptance of marijuana use among children and teenagers.”
“Congress continues to support the existing Federal legal process for determining the safety and efficacy of drugs and opposes efforts to circumvent this process by legalizing marijuana, and other Schedule I drugs, for medicinal use without valid scientific evidence and the approval of the Food and Drug Administration,” the resolution said.
In a 2010 letter to a constituent, Brown wrote that “there are risks associated with making marijuana legally available,” according to NORML. “The widespread popularity and use of this drug among our nation’s youth, as well as its role as a ‘pipeline’ drug (potentially leading to the use of heroin and other lethal drugs) distinguishes it from other controlled substances, and we must be particularly careful before creating the potential for expanded access and use.”
In 2011, Brown told a student who asked him to support marijuana reform legislation that he would “probably not” take initiative on the issue.
“I’ve got other priorities,” the senator said.
That said, while Brown has refused to take proactive legislative steps on marijuana, and supported the 1998 anti-legalization resolution, he did take a moderate pro-reform position when forced to vote on cannabis issues later during his tenure in the House.
And although he doesn’t go as far as his colleagues and potential presidential rivals—including former prosecutors like Harris and fellow candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)—in endorsing the legalization of marijuana, he has voiced support for medical cannabis and letting states set their own policies without federal interference.
“Senator Brown supports legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing recreational use at the federal level and allowing states to go further if they choose,” Brown spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said in an email.
When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked Obama-era guidance that urged federal prosecutors to respect local cannabis laws last year, Brown pushed back.
“I wish the attorney general would mind the store on other things and would put his efforts into this terrible addiction issue about opioids and worry less about medical marijuana,” he said. “I’m concerned when the attorney general and the Justice Department, it’s a huge operation, it’s powerful and when they come in this way I’m concerned about what it means for people who need medical marijuana and believe it can help them.”
And during his South Carolina pre-campaign stop last week, Brown indicated that he’s in favor of removing criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession and supports letting state-legal cannabis businesses access banks, according to a reporter who as in attendance.
Nonetheless, the fact that he has not supported legalizing marijuana or put his name on any cannabis reform bills in Congress makes him stand out from most Democrats who are seeking their party’s presidential nomination or are considering doing so.
“It is time for Senator Brown to place himself on the right side of history and give his unqualified support to ending marijuana prohibition in this country. His current position has more in common with the dated mentality that Democrats held in the 1990s than where the overwhelming majority of all Americans are in 2019,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said in an interview. “If he maintains his opposition to legalization, his presidential aspirations may be over before they even start. Supporting the failed status quo of prohibition in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will likely prove disqualifying with party voters.”
A Gallup poll last year found that 66 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana. Among Democrats, 75 percent are on board with ending cannabis prohibition.
Even a majority of Republicans now want to legalize marijuana, according to the survey.
UPDATE: Brown announced on Thursday afternoon that is not running for president.