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Where Presidential Candidate Beto O’Rourke Stands On Marijuana

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Beto O’Rourke announced that he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination on March 14, 2019, and quickly signaled that marijuana reform would be a main feature of his campaign.

The former congressman, who dropped out of the race on November 1, has been a critic of the war on drugs for much of his political career, going back to his tenure on the El Paso City Council, and he’s spoken about the issue earlier and more often than many of his Democratic opponents.

His legislative track record earned him a “B+” grade from NORML in its 2016 congressional scorecard and the organization endorsed his 2018 Senate campaign.

This piece was last updated on November 5, 2019 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race.

Legislation And Policy Actions

During his time in Congress, O’Rourke was the chief sponsor of one piece of drug reform legislation and cosponsored several others.

He introduced a bill that would have prohibited the federal government from withholding a state’s apportionment of federal funds for highway infrastructure if the state failed to enact and enforce laws requiring that individuals with drug convictions have their licenses revoked or suspended.

“Finding employment and earning legal income is crucial for people trying to stay out of the criminal justice system,” he said in a Medium post about the legislation. “Further, we know that license suspensions undermine recovery efforts for those with drug use problems and the formerly incarcerated.”

O’Rourke also cosponsored about two dozen drug reform bills focusing on federal cannabis and hemp laws.

He signed onto legislation to end marijuana prohibition and, on six occasions, to protect states that have legalized marijuana from federal intervention. He also cosponsored a bill that would automatically seal the criminal records of individuals convicted for non-violent federal marijuana offenses and another that would allow students to maintain their federal financial aid if they have a cannabis possession conviction.

“We stand a better chance of keeping kids from using marijuana if it is sold by regulated businesses instead of by teenagers on street corners and middle school playgrounds,” he wrote in a 2014 email to supporters, touting his cosponsorships. “Regulating and taxing the sale of marijuana would limit bloated black market profits from empowering murderous criminal enterprises that have grown too powerful in many U.S. neighborhoods and in neighboring Mexico.”

Other legislation that received O’Rourke’s cosponsorship included a broad bill to close the policy gap between federal and state marijuana laws, several others designed to expand research into medical cannabis, including for veterans, three to remove CBD from the list of federally banned substances and legislation to allow doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to recommend cannabis to veterans.

He’s also supported congressional efforts to legalize industrial hemp and provide banking access to state-legal marijuana businesses. The congressman cosponsored additional bills to allow cannabis businesses to take advantage of tax credits or deductions and also to require a federal study on the impact of state marijuana programs.

The congressman also voted in favor of House floor amendments to shield states with medical cannabis laws from federal enforcement in 2014 and 2015, and to extend that protection to any state with legal recreational cannabis or CBD medicines alone. O’Rourke voted for amendments to let VA doctors recommend medical cannabis three times, to protect states that have legalized industrial hemp four times and once to secure access to banks for marijuana businesses.

That was all during his six years in the House. But O’Rourke has a longer history of pushing for drug reform, including when he served as a member of the El Paso City Council.

In fact, it was O’Rourke’s bold stance on drug policy that helped launch his national political career, as The Intercept reported. As the drug war raged along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2009, the council member introduced an amendment that called for a conversation about legalizing marijuana and “an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics.”

The measure passed 8-0, but then-Rep. Sylvestre Reyes (D-TX) pressured the mayor to veto it and told council members that the city would be at risk of losing federal funds in the veto was overridden. After an override vote narrowly failed, O’Rourke decided to primary Reyes for the congressional seat, ultimately defeating the incumbent in an upset that likely led many other politicians rethink their approach drug war politics.

O’Rourke’s surprise Democratic primary win came in spite of the fact that Reyes emphasized the challenger’s drug policy views in sensationalized attack ads.

Reyes Works — Say No to Drugs — from Silvestre Reyes on Vimeo.

Cruz also tried to use the resolution against O’Rourke during their 2018 Senate battle, characterizing his challenger as a supporter of legalizing “heroin and cocaine and fentanyl.”

On The Campaign Trail

Just hours into his campaign, O’Rourke spoke about cannabis reform at a coffee shop in Iowa, signaling that the issue would be front and center as he found his footing in an already crowded race.

He said the country “should end the federal prohibition on marijuana” and observed that those most impacted by prohibition “do not look like this room. They are browner and blacker than most of America.”

In September, the candidate released a detailed marijuana-focused plan that included using federal cannabis tax revenue to fund a “Drug War Justice Grant” program to give direct monthly payments to formerly incarcerated people.

It would also promote equity in the cannabis industry by tying federal funds for states to requirements that licensing fees be waived for low-income people who have been convicted of cannabis offenses. Small marijuana businesses would be protected from predatory investors under the plan, and a majority of licenses would be awarded to companies owned by minorities and people disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.

Those cannabis proposals were reiterated in a broader criminal justice reform plan the candidate published in October, which also pledged to end mandatory minimum sentencing, cash bail and private prisons—positions the candidate had previously taken elsewhere.

That same month, O’Rourke released a substance use and addiction policy plan that called for broad decriminalization of drug possession, as well as the establishment of safe injection sites and other harm reduction measures to prevent overdoses.

During a campaign stop in Nevada in April, O’Rourke seemed to recommend medical cannabis as an alternative to opioids to a woman who said it was becoming more difficult to obtain the prescription for pain management in the midst of the drug crisis.

The former congressman has repeatedly argued that pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic.

“We are busting people for possession of marijuana—putting them in jail, forcing them to check a box on every employment application after their lease, making it impossible to attend [universities] because they no longer qualify for federally backed student loans,” he said during a CNN town hall in May. “And yet no one from Purdue Pharma has spent a night in jail or paid any significant consequence. We gotta do better.”

While O’Rourke would later voice support for decriminalizing drugs beyond marijuana in the plan noted above, he sidestepped a question about the policy during the event.

At a Democratic presidential debate in October, the candidate said he agreed that decriminalizing opioids could mitigate the overdose crisis. He also talked about the importance of providing military veterans with access to cannabis.

 

In an interview with ABC News, O’Rourke noted that he’s been in favor of “an end to the war on drugs and an end of the prohibition on marijuana years before any other major candidate did it.”

The former congressman’s longstanding support for drug policy reform was also featured in a campaign video released in September.

“Since my time on the El Paso City Council, I’ve been advocating for legalizing marijuana,” he said in a tweet. “We will never erase the damage done by the War on Drugs—the lives lost, the years spent behind bars—but we can end the cruelty today and begin to right the wrongs of our past.”

O’Rourke said during a trip to the Southern border that the war on drugs and the deportation of convicted individuals has contributed to violence that has led people in South American to flee north for refuge.

“Too many fathers are unjustly away from their kids today because of a failed war on drugs waged disproportionately on communities of color, a cash bail system that punishes people for being poor, and a private prison industry funded by needlessly putting more people behind bars,” he wrote in June. “To permanently reshape the justice system, we must not just end the prohibition of marijuana and expunge the records of those arrested for possession but we must end cash bail, prisons for profit, mandatory minimums, & the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline. As president, I will.”

 

“Mass incarceration begins in kindergarten—when a child of color is more likely to be suspended or expelled,” the O’Rourke said in October. “We need to end the school-to-prison pipeline, end for-profit prisons, end cash bail, end the War on Drugs, and bring about transformative justice.”

He also applauded a court ruling that ordered pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the opioid crisis, writing that it’s “about damn time.”

“We can’t accept living in a country where Americans are in jail for possessing marijuana—but not a single Pharma exec has spent a night behind bars for the opioid crisis,” he said. “The least they can do is pay up.”

During a campaign event in Los Angeles, O’Rourke met with advocates for social equity in the legal cannabis market and tweeted that legalizing marijuana “isn’t enough.”

“We also need to make sure those most impacted by the War on Drugs have a chance to benefit from his growing industry,” he said.

Part of that involves ensuring that “those most impacted by the war on drugs are the ones benefiting from the economic activity related to marijuana,” he added.

 

O’Rourke also discussed restorative justice policies in a meeting with cannabis business owners in Oakland.

 

He said during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session that he will “end the war on drugs and treat it “not as a criminal justice challenge but as a public health opportunity.”

“People need help, treatment, support, long term recovery,” he said. “They don’t need to go to jail or be locked up in prison.”

Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts

O’Rourke has been ahead of the national drug reform conversation for some time, and his embrace of ending the drug war and legalizing marijuana has been frequently emphasized in speeches and social media posts.

About a year after O’Rourke’s resolution passed the council but was later vetoed, he told audience member at the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference that the congressman threatening council members about the vote “was the best thing that could possibly happen to move the debate forward.”

That’s because “it drew so much attention and so much criticism and so much coverage nationally and internationally that it did much more than a unanimously passed resolution left on its own could have ever done,” he said.

O’Rourke became something of a face of bold drug policy reform, speaking at a Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference in 2010 and recalling his experience with the resolution.

But there was a moment, as he launched his challenge against Reyes, that he and his advisors considered softening his position.

Before his book, Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico, was published, members of his campaign committee worried about drawing too much attention to his views on marijuana. But O’Rourke was apparently convinced that doing so would make him just like any other politician, according to Politico, and he pushed ahead.

And by the time he got to Congress, there was no more questioning where he stood. He promised, shortly after taking office, that he would be “getting more involved” in the issue and that he’d “do so through the perspective of the community I represent.”

True to form, he signed onto a bipartisan letter in 2014 imploring President Barack Obama to deschedule marijuana.

“You said that you don’t believe marijuana is any more dangerous than alcohol, a fully legalized substance, and believe it to be less dangerous ‘in terms of its impact on the individual consumer. This is true. Marijuana, however, remains listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act at Schedule I, the strictest classification, along with heroin and LSD. This is a higher listing than cocaine and methamphetamine, Schedule II substances that you gave as examples of harder drugs. This makes no sense.”

In another letter, he and several colleagues proposed cutting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) funding for its cannabis eradication program. And O’Rourke joined lawmakers in a separate letter urging Obama to promote ending the global war on drugs at a United Nations meeting.

Veterans access to medical cannabis was a priority for O’Rourke, who not only cosponsored legislation to accomplish that but also circulated a petition on the question of expanding access to send a message to Congress.

“We’ve agreed that when these veterans come back and transition into civilian life that we’re going to be there for their medical needs whatever they are,” he said. “Right now we’re talking about making sure that in those states where marijuana is already legal,  VA doctors are able to discuss marijuana as a possible treatment option.”

He sent out an email blast in 2014, fundraising on his drug reform platform.

“As a rational and humane country, we can decide, as we did with alcohol that the harms in the prohibition of marijuana far outweigh any gains in security and in our efforts to keep these drugs away from our fellow citizens,” he wrote.

And weeks before announcing his presidential bid, he sent out another email asking supporters to join him in the fight to legalize cannabis.

In an interview with Texas Monthly, O’Rourke stressed the need for federal legislation to end the war on drugs, and not just leave it up to states to legalize on an individual basis.

“Ending the prohibition on marijuana—not making it a state-by-state issue and hiding behind this baloney states’ rights defense, but instead making the tough but important decision to federally end the prohibition on marijuana—is gonna save lives, save billions of dollars, move us from a country that imprisons more of its own citizens than any other country on the face of the planet into one that sees more of those same citizens leading productive, taxpaying, constructive lives in communities all over our state.”

In an appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, O’Rourke reiterated his support for ending marijuana prohibition, saying the country has “the chance to do the right thing.”

“We have the world’s largest prison population bar none,” he said.

In his Senate run against Cruz where O’Rourke’s pro-reform agenda became a central feature of his candidacy. In his announcement speech, he said the country has “an opportunity to end this failed war on drugs.”

“We have an opportunity, after more than half the states in this union have stopped locking people up for marijuana convictions—have filled our jails so that we imprison more of own people than any other country—and make sure that we help those who are struggling with addiction, with drug use, find a better way, a connection to the help and the care that they deserve,” he said.

In numerous interviews, and in road trip videos posted on his social media accounts, O’Rourke talked about the need to legalize marijuana. While he made sure to stress that he wasn’t endorsing its use, he has framed the issue as necessary to repair injustices within our criminal justice system.

“[W]e are doing to almost ensures that marijuana’s going to be more available to them in middle school and certainly in high school than if it were controlled and regulated in its sale,” he said. “We have to reform our drug laws. We have to end the war on drugs.”

“Who’s going to be the last black man to be behind bars in Texas for something that’s legal in the rest of the United States?” O’Rourke asked at a campaign stop. “We need to end the war on drugs that’s become a war on people.”

Speaking at a Baptist church, O’Rourke talked about racial disparities in marijuana enforcement amidst an outcry over the death of Botham Jean, a Texas man who was killed by a police officer who entered his apartment.

“How can it be in this day and age—in this very year, in this community—that a young man, African American, in his own apartment, is shot and killed by a police officer?” O’Rourke asked. “And when we all want justice and the facts and the information to make an informed decision, what is released to the public? That he had a small amount of marijuana in his kitchen? How can that be just in this country?”

“Let me ask you this: in a country where the majority of the states in the union have already decided to make marijuana legal in one form or another—where people in California and Colorado and the Northwest are getting filthy rich legally selling marijuana today—who is going to be the last African American boy or man to rot behind bars in Texas for something that’s legal in almost every other single part of the country?”

Legalization quickly proved to be a winning issue among voters, O’Rourke told Roll Call.

“If I don’t bring it up in a meeting, it is brought up by a constituent,” he said. “I can be in a small town [or] big city, and it cuts across party lines.”

Throughout the race, though, Cruz attempted to cast O’Rourke as a radical who supports legalizing fentanyl at a time that the U.S. is grappling with an opioid crisis. After PolitiFact deemed that characterization “FALSE,” the senator called the organization a “liberal parody site.”

In an attack ad, Cruz said that O’Rourke’s comments on the drug war showed that he was “just too reckless for Texas.”

“I don’t want to legalize narcotics,” O’Rourke said at a CNN town hall event. “I do think we should end the prohibition on marijuana and effectively control and regulate its sale and make sure those who need it for medicinal purposes are able to obtain it.”

The two candidates clashed on marijuana and drug policy at a debate.

“I want to end the war on drugs and specifically want to end the prohibition on marijuana,” O’Rourke said. “What I do want to ensure is that where, in this country, most states have decided that marijuana will legal at some form—for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes or at a minimum be decriminalized—that we don’t have another veteran in this state, prescribed an opioid because the doctor at the VA would rather prescribe medicinal marijuana but is prohibited by law from doing that.”

Cruz’s campaign attacks didn’t seem to intimidate O’Rourke. He even played alongside legendary musician and cannabis enthusiast Willie Nelson, strumming and singing to the song “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” at a concert in the midst of the campaign.

In an op-ed for The Houston Chronicle, O’Rourke again called for the end of the drug war, which he said “has long been a war on people, waged on some people over other people.”

“Who is going to be the last man—more likely than not a black man—to languish behind bars for possessing or using marijuana when it is legal in more than half of the states in this country? We should end the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge the records of those who were locked away for possessing it, ensuring that they can get work, finish their education, contribute to their full potential and to the greatness of this country.”

The candidate has also supported decriminalizing marijuana possession in his home state of Texas and expunging criminal records for prior cannabis possession convictions.

“Not only must we end the prohibition on marijuana, we must expunge the arrest records of those who arrested solely for the possession of something,” he said.

O’Rourke’s embrace of ending the drug war also extends globally, according to a list of action items he proposed as part of his immigration platform.

“End the global war on drugs,” he wrote. “An imprisonment- and interdiction-first approach has not worked, has accelerated the erosion of civil society in much of Latin America and has militarized a public health issue to the detriment of all concerned.”

After then Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama era guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities last year, O’Rourke posted a video calling the decision a “terrible policy for our state and our country” that “sends us backwards.”

He also discussed cannabis reform during a roundtable discussion with other pro-reform lawmakers.

Personal Experience With Marijuana

“Like many people in this country, I’ve used marijuana,” he said during a campaign stop in September 2019. “Like many white people in this country, I was never stopped or frisked or arrested or put behind bars or had to check a box on every employment application form saying that I had a conviction because that never happened to me.”

“It wasn’t my experience. Disproportionately that experience has fallen to people of color in this country,” he said.

During his time in New York City, O’Rourke said he was around people who occasionally smoked cannabis and admitted that he was one of those people.

“Pot, yeah, there was definitely, you know,” he told The New York Times. “There was, uh, I don’t know how to put this, but yeah. People smoked pot, but not habitually.”

And beyond marijuana, O’Rourke revealed that in the 1980s he used the handle “Psychedelic Warlord” to post as a member of an online hacking group. That said, he did say in response to a voter’s question that he has never tried LSD.

Marijuana Under An O’Rourke Presidency

O’Rourke stands out among many of the current Democratic presidential candidates as someone who has long challenged prohibitionist drug policies and floated bold reform ideas before marijuana legalization entered the political mainstream. His track record and talking points are consistent, and he reiterated his call for ending cannabis prohibition within hours of announcing his candidacy. Therefore it is likely that he would to some extent prioritize federal marijuana and drug policy reform if elected president.

Where Presidential Candidate John Hickenlooper Stands On Marijuana

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Where President Trump Stands On Marijuana

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With the 2020 presidential election underway, people interested in legalizing marijuana and ending the war on drugs may find themselves wondering which candidate will do more to advance their causes: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden or incumbent President Donald Trump.

While Trump has not pursued a full-scale crackdown of state-legal cannabis programs and has voiced tentative support for modest reform legislation, his administration has made a number of hostile anti-marijuana actions—from rescinding Obama-era guidance on cannabis prosecutions to implementing policies making immigrants ineligible for citizenship if they consume marijuana or work in the cannabis industry.

Put simply, the president is a drug policy enigma. His past comments on drug policy, attitude toward state-level legalization efforts and administrative actions as president offer a dizzying portrait of a person who once said all drugs should be legal but who also appointed a vociferous anti-cannabis attorney general as one of his first acts in the White House.

Over the course of his first term in office, reform advocates have struggled to peg the president. On the one hand, he has not launched an all-out offensive on state-legal cannabis businesses and, in fact, said it was his administration’s policy that they could continue to operate unencumbered by the federal government despite prohibition remaining on the books. Trump also signed a bill federally legalizing hemp following decades of its prohibition. On the other hand, he’s declined to use his power to enact changes to legitimize the industry and has appointed several officials who hold hostile views toward reform.

In any case, the Trump reelection campaign has made clear it wants to depict the president as the criminal justice reform candidate, repeatedly attacking Biden over his record as an “architect” of punitive drug laws during his decades in the Senate, for example.

To help sort out where Trump stands on marijuana and drug policy in general, here’s an overview of policy actions his administration has taken and remarks he’s made both before and during his presidency.

Policy Actions And Comments As President

Support for states’ rights.

In 2018, the president gave advocates reason to celebrate. Asked whether he supports a bipartisan bill filed by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), which would allow states to set their own marijuana policies, Trump said “I really do.”

“I know exactly what he’s doing. We’re looking at it,” he said, referring to Gardner. “But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”

He reiterated his support for a states’ rights approach to marijuana in August 2019, saying it’s “a very big subject and right now we are allowing states to make that decision. A lot of states are making that decision, but we’re allowing states to make that decision.”

Gardner, who held up Justice Department nominations in protest of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s move in order to generate a cannabis commitment from the president, told Marijuana Moment in an interview that Trump typically makes “very supportive” comments about cannabis reform when they’ve talked.

“It’s all been positive. And I think we’re seeing that,” he said. “Had they wanted to do something, they’d do what Jeff Sessions did and mess around with that and they haven’t.”

Current Attorney General William Barr has said that he’s not interested in upsetting “settled expectations” as it concerns policies in place while the Cole memo was still effective.

“However, I think the current situation is untenable and really has to be addressed. It’s almost like a backdoor nullification of federal law,” he said during a hearing last year, later adding that he would prefer that Congress pass legislation codifying protections for states that have legalized cannabis rather than maintain the status quo of conflicting state and federal policies.

To date, no large-scale marijuana raids against licensed businesses in legal states have taken place under the Trump administration.

Trump’s personal opinion on cannabis consumption and drug policy reform is a mixed bag.

Despite his pledged support for states’ rights to legalize, Trump evidently holds some negative views toward cannabis consumption, as evidenced in a recording from 2018 that was leaked two years later. In that recording, the president said that using marijuana makes people “lose IQ points.”

In August 2020, Trump weighed in on Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) prior comments on marijuana shortly after she was announced as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate. While the president declined to explicitly discuss the senator’s cannabis policy positions, he said “she lied” and “said things that were untrue” when presented with details about an interview she gave last year in which she discussed smoking marijuana in college.

He also urged Republicans not to place marijuana legalization initiatives on state ballots out of concern that it could increase Democratic turnout in elections. A Republican strategist told The Daily Beast that, as far as Trump is concerned, the “pot issue is one of many that he thinks could be a danger.”

“He once told me it would be very ‘smart’ for the Democrat[ic] Party to get as many of these on the ballot as they could,” the source said.

In February 2020, the president applauded countries that impose the death penalty for drug traffickers—a point he has repeatedly made. “I don’t know that our country is ready for that,” Trump said in the more recent comment, “but if you look throughout the world, the countries with a powerful death penalty—death penalty—with a fair but quick trial, they have very little if any drug problem.”

That said, the president in 2019 seemed to acknowledge the failure of policies prohibiting drugs during a meeting on vaping, stating that banned products are “going to come here illegally” even if they’re prohibited.

Curiously, Trump proposed mandating that he and Biden take drug tests prior to participating in general election debates.

The president signed “right to try” legislation in 2018 that allows terminal patients to access drugs that haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but have cleared a phase one trial—a move that some advocates say could let a limited number of people use marijuana, psilocybin and MDMA for therapeutic reasons.

Administrative marijuana and drug policy actions.

One of the administration’s most widely publicized actions—and one that caused acute panic among marijuana advocates and stakeholders—happened in January 2018, when Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Cole memo. Under that policy, federal prosecutors were advised to generally not pursue action against individuals for state-legal cannabis-related activity, except under a limited set of circumstances.

Its revocation worried many that a federal crackdown was looming, especially with longtime prohibitionist Sessions at the helm of the Justice Department. However, that fear was not realized—and according to Gardner, Trump personally opposed the move and said “we need undo this.”

“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” Trump reportedly said, referencing Sessions’s rhetoric when rescinding the policy.

The Justice Department recently asked a federal court to force California marijuana regulators to disclose documents about certain licensed cannabis businesses, and a federal court ruled that they must comply.

Another controversial administrative action concerns immigrants and marijuana. In April 2019, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo stating that using marijuana or engaging in cannabis-related “activities” such as working for a dispensary—even in states where it’s legal—makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship because it means they don’t have “good moral character.”

In December 2019, the Justice Department issued a notice that it was seeking to make certain marijuana offenses, including misdemeanor possession, grounds to deny asylum to migrants.

That month, officials with Trump’s U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also testified against several pieces of legislation that would increase access to medical cannabis for service members and also require the department to conduct clinical research into the therapeutic benefits of marijuana for conditions that commonly afflict veterans.

Using funds provided by a salary donation from Trump, the Surgeon General issued and publicized a warning in August 2019, cautioning against marijuana use by adolescents and pregnant women. The notice also suggested that the state-level cannabis legalization movement was enticing young people to consume marijuana by normalizing the plant.

BuzzFeed News reported in 2018 that the Trump administration created a secret committee that requested agencies across the federal government submit memos on how to combat public support for cannabis reform.

Trump’s Justice Department in 2019 sided with a Mississippi student who filed a lawsuit against his school after he was allegedly prevented from talking about the issue earlier this year, arguing that the First Amendment protects students who discuss legalization and that restrictive policies prohibiting such free expression at public schools are unconstitutional.

FDA under Trump has on several occasions solicited public comments to help inform the country’s position on the potential global reclassification of marijuana.

The Internal Revenue Service in September 2020 released updated guidance on tax policy for the marijuana industry, including instructions on how cannabis businesses that don’t have access to bank accounts can pay their tax bills using large amounts of cash.

Administration’s hemp regulatory actions following Trump signing legalization into law.

One of the most significant cannabis developments to occur under the Trump administration was the federal legalization of hemp that was accomplished when he signed the 2018 Farm Bill—unleashing a massive market for a crop that had been prohibited for more than 80 years as a federally controlled substance. The move elicited bipartisan praise, and Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture has put significant resources into implementing the reform.

That said, advocates, lawmakers and industry stakeholders have raised several concerns about proposed rules for hemp such as requiring that the crop be tested for THC contents by only Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-certified labs.

DEA also released proposed rules for hemp and CBD in August 2020 to put the federal agency officially in compliance with the 2018 Farm Bill. However, some industry players suspect that the agency is really setting the stage to crack down on the newly legal market.

In September 2020, USDA announced that hemp farmers could qualify for coronavirus relief loans, reversing an earlier decision to exclude the crop based on price decline data amid the pandemic.

Also in 2020, the department made hemp farmers eligible for relief programs if they’ve experienced damage or losses due to a natural disaster.

White House officials met with several hemp industry groups in the summer of 2020 to discuss pending FDA guidance on enforcement policies for CBD products.

Speaking of FDA, the agency has similarly been in the process of developing regulations for CBD to be marketed as a food item or dietary supplement. In the meantime, it has used enforcement discretion to keep the market in check.

The agency has continued to issue warnings to cannabis businesses in certain cases—such as instances in which companies claimed CBD could treat or cure coronavirus—and provide public notices about recalls.

FDA also recently closed a comment period on separate draft guidance on developing cannabis-derived medications.

Cannabis and the Trump budget.

While Trump has spoken out in favor of medical cannabis legalization, on several occasions he has released signing statements on spending legislation stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore a long-standing rider that prohibits the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with state-legal medical marijuana programs.

He also proposed deleting the rider altogether in multiple annual budget proposals to Congress, though Obama did the same thing when he was in office.

In 2019, the White House released a budget request that proposed slightly scaling back restrictive language that has prevented Washington, D.C. from spending its own tax dollars to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana.

Under several budget proposals, the administration has called for significant cuts to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a central agency when it comes to setting federal drug policy and upholding prohibition.

Trump administration personnel and cannabis.

A top spokesperson for Trump’s reelection campaign raised eyebrows in February 2020 when he said that the administration’s policy is that currently illicit drugs, including cannabis, “need to be kept illegal.”

During a press briefing in July 2018, then-Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about the newly elected Mexican president’s suggestion that legalizing and regulating drugs could curtail cartels. She said the administration didn’t have any policy announcements to that end; however, “I can say that we would not support the legalization of all drugs anywhere and certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that would allow more drugs to come into this country.”

The president also named then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), as his chief of staff in March 2020. As a member of Congress, Meadows consistently voted against marijuana reform amendments and was one of only a handful of lawmakers who cheered Sessions’s move to rescind the Obama-era cannabis guidance.

Trump’s stance on cannabis legalization became the jumping off point for a spat between a top White House aide, Republican operatives and a reporter in June after Meadows laughed off a question about the prospects of broad marijuana reform advancing before the election in November.

In April 2020, Trump hired a new press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who has a long record of speaking out against legalization.

Barr, the current attorney general, allegedly directed the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division to carry out investigations into 10 marijuana mergers out of personal animus for the industry. A whistleblower who testified before a key House committee claimed the investigations were unnecessary and wasted departmental resources. But the assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division later argued that the investigations were actually “consistent with protecting consumers’ access to cannabis products, not with animosity toward the industry.”

During a speech at the 2020 Republican National Convention at which Trump was renominated for a second term, the granddaughter of Evangelical preacher Billy Graham took issue with Democratic governors who designated cannabis dispensaries as essential services amid the coronavirus pandemic while imposing restrictions on churches. In a separate convention speech, an advisory board member for Trump’s reelection campaign claimed that Democrats’ push for universal health care is really about ensuring a right to cannabis access.

Meanwhile, the head of the Republican National Committee (RNC), who was recommended for the position by Trump, dodged a question about where the party stands on medical marijuana and stressed that the issue should be addressed at the state level.

After House leadership announced in August 2020 that the chamber would be voting on a bill to federally legalize marijuana, the director of press communications for the president’s reelection campaign tweeted, “House Dems—more worried about pot dealers than providing relief for the American people.” (That vote was ultimately postponed.)

Pre-Presidency Comments

It might come as a surprise, but 30 years ago, Trump argued in favor of legalizing all drugs.

“We’re losing badly the war on drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars,” he said. “What I’d like to do maybe by bringing it up is cause enough controversy that you get into a dialogue on the issue of drugs so people will start to realize that this is the only answer; there is no other answer.”

Then, 25 years later, he was at the Conservative Political Action Conference stating that he thinks marijuana legalization is “bad” and that he feels “strongly about that.”

“They’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado, some big problems,” he said.

But the candidate clarified that he supports states’ rights to set their own marijuana laws, saying, “If they vote for it, they vote for it.”

“Medical marijuana is another thing,” he added. “I think medical marijuana, 100 percent.”

“Medical I agree with. Medical I like,” he said similarly in 2016. “Medical is OK.”

“I think medical should happen, right? Don’t we agree? I mean I think so,” he said at a 2015 rally in Nevada. “I know people that are very, very sick and for whatever reason, the marijuana really helps them.”

He went on to say that “I really believe you should leave it up to the states” when it comes to recreational legalization. “It should be a state situation… In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state.”

Trump reiterated in a radio interview in 2016 that adult-use legalization has “got to be a state decision.”

“Colorado did it as you know and I guess it’s very mixed right now, they haven’t really made a final determination,” he said. “There seems to be certain health problems with it and that would be certainly bothersome.”

“I do like it, you know, from a medical standpoint — it does do pretty good things,” he added “But from the other standpoint, I think that should be up to the states. Certainly, from a medical standpoint, a lot of people are liking it.”

Legalization of drugs is “something that should be studied and maybe should continue to be studied,” Trump told ABC’s This Week in 2015.

“But it’s not something I’d be willing to do right now,” he added. “I think it’s something that I’ve always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don’t want to build walls. We don’t want to do anything. And if you’re not going to want to do the policing, you’re going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it’s not something that I would want to do. But it’s something that certainly has been looked at and I looked at it. If we police properly, we shouldn’t do that.”

In a 2016 radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, Trump seemed more skeptical about cannabis legalization, saying that “there are a lot of bad things happening in Colorado with people’s health. And if you look at the results, you know, they’re getting some pretty bad results.”

“Plus, it’s being taken all over the place. I mean, I would have to look at it very seriously,” he said. “Now I think if you talk about medical, you’re talking about a different ball of wax. But there are a lot of bad results happening in Colorado, and people are talking about it. I’m reading about it. So I would be looking at a couple of different things, but I really would want to study it further, because they’re doing a lot of studies. But you know, some bad medical reports and some bad, bad things are happening with what’s going on in Colorado.”

Discussing legalization during a Fox News interview, Trump said that “in Colorado, the book isn’t written on it yet.”

“There’s a lot of difficulty in terms of illness and what’s going on with the brain and the mind and what it’s doing,” he said. “In some ways I think it’s good and in other ways it’s bad.”

But he reiterated that he supports medical cannabis, saying that “I know people that have serious problems and they did that and it really does help them.”

“By the way, medical marijuana—medical—I am in favor of it 100 percent,” he said.

At a Wisconsin campaign rally in 2016, Trump said he is “watching Colorado very carefully, see what’s happening out there. I’m getting some very negative reports, I’m getting some OK reports, but I’m getting some very negative reports coming out of Colorado as to what’s happening, so we’ll see what happens.”

“There’s a lasting negative impact [from marijuana use]. You do too much of it… There’s a loss of something, so that book has not been written yet but it’s gonna be written pretty soon and I’m not hearing very positive things,” he said, adding that on medical cannabis, “I think I am basically for that. I’ve heard some wonderful things in terms of medical.”

Trump told MSNBC in 2015 that “I don’t really think” people should go to jail for marijuana. However, he added that “I think that maybe the dealers have to be looked at very strongly.”

“You have states all of a sudden legalizing it. So it’s sort of hard to say that you’re in one side of the border and you go to jail and you’re on the other side and can you go into a store and buy it,” he said. “So there is going to be changes made there, Joe, and there has to be… That is a very tough subject nowadays, especially since it’s been legalized and will continue to be legalized.”

In another interview with Fox News, he drew a contrast between recreational and medical marijuana consumption.

The former is “a big problem” that has “tremendously damaging effects to the mind, to the brain, to everything,” he said. But he also said he’s “all for medical marijuana and its help.”

In July 2016, Trump was asked whether he would allow former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) crack down on legal marijuana states if he were to become attorney general.

“I wouldn’t do that, no,” Trump said. “I think it’s up to the states. I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”

Personal Experience With Marijuana

Trump said in a radio interview in 2016 that “I never have smoked it.”

He also wrote in one of his books, “The America We Deserve,” that’s he’s never used cannabis or any other drug. “I’ve never taken drugs of any kind, never had a glass of alcohol. Never had a cigarette, never had a cup of coffee,” he said.

In an interview with Fox News in 2016, Trump said, “No I have not [smoked marijuana]. I would tell you 100 percent because everyone else seems to admit it nowadays… I’ve never smoked a cigarette either.”

Part of his aversion to drug use seems to be linked to his brother’s death from alcoholism. “He had a profound impact on my life, because you never know where you’re going to end up,” Trump said.

That said, the president said on several occasions during his first election bid that he personally knows people who have benefitted from using medical cannabis.

Marijuana Under A Second Trump Term

It’s hard to say how Trump will approach marijuana policy if elected to a second term. The past four years have given good reason to assume that a federal crackdown is unlikely, but at the same time, the president hasn’t signaled at any point that he’d be proactive at pursuing reform. From an administrative standpoint, it seems possible that the status quo would be maintained.

What the second term’s impact on cannabis may largely come down to is the makeup of Congress. If Democrats hold the House and retake control of the Senate, there’s broad expectations that they will advance some form of marijuana reform legislation to the president’s desk—whether it be occupied by Trump or Biden. It’s not clear whether Trump would sign or veto a far-reaching bill that House Democrats have signaled they want to advance which would deschedule cannabis and fund social equity efforts to repair some of the harms of the war on drugs. If Republicans maintain their Senate majority, a more limited bipartisan bill to simply exempt state-legal marijuana activity could get a shot—and the incumbent president has already indicated he would support it.

Then again, this president has been inconsistent in his views on marijuana and drug policy over the years, so it’s hard to predict where he might come down on the issue if given another four years in the White House.

Where Presidential Candidate Joe Biden Stands On Marijuana

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American Medical Association Asks Mississippi Voters To Reject Medical Marijuana Ballot Initiative

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A medical marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on Mississippi’s November ballot is being targeted by two medical associations that are pushing voters to reject the policy change.

With weeks left until the vote, the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) and American Medical Association (AMA) are circulating a sample ballot that instructs voters on how to reject the activist-led measure. For supporters and opponents alike, the way the ballot is structured can be confusing—a product of the legislature approving an alternative that appears alongside Initiative 65.

“The purpose is to defeat Initiative 65. Initiative 65A will allow the legislature to enact changes to the law, which would not be possible with Initiative 65,” the opposition campaign document states. “MSMA is asking for you to join us in educating and encouraging our population to vote against Initiative 65.”

Via MSMA.

This marks the latest obstacle that reform advocates are facing as they work to inform the electorate about how to fill out the ballot to pass their proposal. Despite polls that show support for medical cannabis legalization at 81 percent in Mississippi, opponents aren’t acquiescing to public opinion.

MSMA President Mark Horne told WLBT-TV last week that the organization was asked to review the initiative and that “it was immediately clear that this is an effort focused on generating profits for an industry that has no ties to the medical or health care community in Mississippi.”

But according to Jamie Grantham, communications director for Mississippians for Compassionate Care (MCC), that talking point has only recently been aired and the campaign didn’t receive that feedback until MSMA mounted this opposition push. She told Marijuana Moment on Monday that the group’s steering committee is composed of several physicians who also had a hand in drafting the measure’s language—and that includes doctors who are part of MSMA.

“Ultimately, it boils down to patients being able to have access to this through their physician. They need to be able to have that conversation with them,” she said. “If certain physicians don’t see a benefit to that, that’s fine. But lots of other physicians do, and that’s evidenced undeniably in the 34 other states with medical marijuana programs where patients are receiving relief.”

AMA President Susan Bailey argued that “amending a state constitution to legalize an unproven drug is the wrong approach,” adding that there are concerns about youth exposure and impaired driving.

That said, a scientific journal published by AMA has printed research showing the advantages of broad marijuana legalization, however, with one recent study showing that people in states where recreational cannabis is legal were significantly less likely to experience vaping-related lung injuries than those in states where it is prohibited.

The organization has long maintained an opposition to legalization but has called for a review of marijuana’s restrictive federal Schedule I status.

Marijuana Moment reached out to AMA for comment, but a representative did not respond by the time of publication.

If the Mississippi campaign’s measure passes, it would allow patients with debilitating medical issues to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.

In June, lawmakers introduced yet another medical cannabis alternative resolution that would’ve posed an additional threat to the activist-driven reform initiative. But, to advocates’ relief, the legislation didn’t advance before lawmakers went home for the summer.

Nebraska Activists Unveil New Medical Marijuana Initiative For 2022 Following Supreme Court Defeat

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Nebraska Activists Unveil New Medical Marijuana Initiative For 2022 Following Supreme Court Defeat

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Nebraska activists on Monday announced they are filing a new medical marijuana ballot initiative after an earlier version got shot down by the state Supreme Court this month.

The previous proposal had already collected enough signatures from voters and qualified for this November’s ballot, but a local sheriff filed a challenge, arguing that it violated the state’s single-subject rule that prohibits measures that deal with multiple issues. The secretary of state’s office rejected that claim, but the case went to court and a majority of justices ultimately ruled that the proposal would be removed from the ballot.

While advocates are disappointed that the state won’t have the opportunity to enact the policy change this year, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana didn’t waste any time putting together a new initiative that they feel will pass the single-subject test and appear on the 2022 ballot.

Language of the new proposal simply states: “Persons in the State of Nebraska shall have the right to cannabis in all its forms for medical purposes.”

Of course, that simplified text might satisfy the ballot policy, but it leaves an open questions about what—if any—regulated market would provide people with access to cannabis. It also doesn’t define eligibility, so that right to marijuana would appear to be unrestricted as long as person purports to use it for therapeutic reasons.

Those questions, if they remain unanswered by the campaign, could prove to be a sticking point for voters who would otherwise support regulated access to medical cannabis but might be uncomfortable with what could be a “free-for-all” situation that opponents have locked activists into with the single-subject challenge.

That said, the advocacy group says it plans to follow up the new simple constitutional amendment with “trailing statutory initiatives to set up a safe and secure medical cannabis system in Nebraska” if lawmakers fail to pass any medical marijuana  legislation over the next year. That’s similar to how casino gaming supporters are pursuing their issue with companion constitutional and statutory ballot measures.

Under this year’s blocked initiative, physicians would have been able to recommend cannabis to patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions, and those patients would then have been allowed to possess, purchase and “discreetly” cultivate marijuana for personal use.

Sens. Anna Wishart (D) and Adam Morfeld (D), cochairs of Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, have tried for years to pass medical cannabis bills in the legislature only to be blocked by opposition from leadership.

Now, between the Supreme Court defeat and legislative inaction, they’re charting a new path.

“Families with loved ones suffering from conditions like epilepsy, PTSD, Parkinson’s, and cancer have fought for years to make medical cannabis safely accessible in our state as it is in 33 other states,” Wishart said in a press release. “This year over 190,000 Nebraskans successfully petitioned our government during a pandemic for that right, and despite receiving qualification from the Secretary of State, our initiative was removed from the ballot by a 5-2 vote from Nebraska’s Supreme Court. We will not give up and intend to bring this fight to the legislature in January with a bill that I will introduce and to the ballot in 2022.”

Morfeld added that the “new petition language indisputably presents a single subject and makes medical cannabis a constitutional right.”

“Then following with several statutory initiatives, we will establish a safe and regulated medical cannabis system,” he said. “Nebraskans have a constitutional right to petition their government, and we will not stop until they can exercise their right and have their voices heard on medical cannabis.”

While the timing isn’t ideal as far as advocates are concerned, given that presidential election years are typically targeted by cannabis reform supporters because of relatively larger turnout by supporters as compared to midterm cycles, 2022 is the next option they’re left with. That said, it’s possible that the continuing momentum for reform via the ballot could spur legislators to take up the issue in the meantime.

For what it’s worth, Nebraska’s attorney general said in an opinion last year that efforts to legalize medical marijuana in the state would be preempted by federal law and “would be, therefore, unconstitutional.”

New Jersey Marijuana Campaign Launches First Ad As Poll Shows Support For Legalization Referendum

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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