South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced that he was competing for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on April 14, 2019 and dropped out on March 1, 2020.
If elected, he would have been the first openly gay and youngest president, and he’s supportive of marijuana legalization and drug decriminalization.
While the candidate hadn’t spoken extensively about cannabis reform prior to officially announcing his presidential bid, nor did he act on any marijuana legislation during his time in the mayor’s office, he’s quickly evolved on the issue. Here’s a look at where Buttigieg stands on marijuana.
This piece was last updated on March 2, 2020 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race.
Legislation And Policy Actions
As mayor, Buttigieg does not appear to have signed legislation directly related to marijuana. He did, however, approve an ordinance in 2017 that prohibited businesses in the city from selling synthetic cannabinoids.
Thanks to the members of the new @NotInOurCmunity committee, we are raising awareness and accountability when it comes to “synthetic marijuana” and related harmful products. pic.twitter.com/FZNrBcKVap
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) May 14, 2018
“Getting less attention [than opioids] nationally is the issue of synthetic cannabinoids, sometimes called synthetic marijuana,” he said in a press release commending the city council for approving the ordinance. “These products, sometimes available in convenience stores and gas stations, are much more dangerous than actual marijuana.”
Buttigieg has faced criticism over a report about racially disparate marijuana arrests in South Bend during his time as mayor. A campaign spokesperson said that “mayors don’t make the law related to drug possession.”
At a presidential debate, he was confronted about the enforcement data and said, “On my watch, drug arrests in South Bend were lower than the national average—and specifically to marijuana, lower than Indiana.” He added that there’s “no question” that systemic racial bias has been a factor in cannabis arrests.
Pete Buttigieg's campaign sends out a factcheck a little while after that exchange on drug decriminalization and drug arrest rates in South Bend. pic.twitter.com/Lw9091paqq
— Daniel Strauss (@DanielStrauss4) February 8, 2020
On CNN, the candidate said, “All of us are implicated in these problems, and I take responsibility for everything good, bad and indifferent that we did.”
“All of us are implicated in these problems, and I take responsibility for everything good, bad and indifferent that we did,” says former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg when asked about the city’s marijuana possession arrest rates for black residents https://t.co/ZdAuJ5g1x8 pic.twitter.com/xHn9keAP0B
— CNN (@CNN) February 9, 2020
He similarly acknowledged racial disparities in marijuana enforcement in South Bend during an event in Nevada.
Buttigieg responds to a question about the police department scandal in South Bend by acknowledging successful responses and also ongoing failures like failure to recruit Black cops *and* persistence of racial disparity in marijuana arrests. The latter was a focus in last debate pic.twitter.com/4LKUyS2jGQ
— Daniel Marans (@danielmarans) February 18, 2020
On The Campaign Trail
Like most of his opponents for the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg favors marijuana legalization—but he’s also one of the only candidates who’s backed broad drug decriminalization.
In July 2019, the mayor released a racial justice plan that included policies to legalize cannabis and remove criminal penalties for possession of all drugs.
Named after American hero Frederick Douglass, this plan demands we take aggressive steps toward fulfilling long-broken promises of true equality, including reforming broken systems, strengthening access to credit, and injecting capital into the Black community.
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) July 11, 2019
“We will, on the federal level, eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses and apply these reductions retroactively, legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions,” the plan states.
In a separate plan aimed at addressing mental health issues in the country, the candidate explicitly said he would pursue “decriminalizing all drug possession” during his first term in office if elected.
The plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.
“Eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses and apply these reductions retroactively, legalize marijuana, and expunge past convictions,” his campaign website states.
Buttigieg talked about his drug reform agenda during a visit to a dispensary in Las Vegas in October 2019, which Marijuana Moment attended.
During that trip, the former mayor told Marijuana Moment that doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) should be able to recommend medical cannabis to military veterans. He also said that “legitimate medical use of cannabis should be covered” by health insurance.
To mark Veterans Day, Buttigieg released a plan calling for “legislation that will empower VA physicians to issue medical cannabis recommendations to augment a veterans’ broader treatment plan, in accordance with the laws of states where it is legal.”
He would also encourage VA to “conduct studies on the use of marijuana to treat pain.”
If Congress fails to act on cannabis reform, Buttigieg said in February 2020 that he would board Air Force One and “fly it directly into the home district of a member who is standing in the way” in order to pressure them to heed the will of voters.
At a Democratic presidential debate in February 2020, the candidate was pressed on his drug decriminalization plan. He took issue with the use of the word “decriminalization” to describe his proposal and said he simply wants to “end the use of incarceration as a response” to possession cases.
While major drug policy reform groups define decriminalization as a policy where the penalty for simple possession does not include incarceration, at least for a first offense, Buttigieg has been reluctant to embrace the term.
“Possession should not be dealt with through incarceration,” he said in a post-debate interview, adding that some cases could be treated as misdemeanor offenses but that the “point is that we have learned through 40 years of a failed war on drugs that criminalizing addiction doesn’t work.”
Buttigieg was asked in February how he would exercise the authority in light of President Trump’s move to pardon or commute the sentences of a former Illinois governor, a former New York City police commissioner and a financier, among others.
This president uses his pardon power to reward friends and allies.
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) February 19, 2020
“I would start with nonviolent drug offenders caught up in the racial disparities of the failed war on drugs,” Buttigieg replied. “I actually think presidential clemency power can be an important part of how we decarcerate a country that is shockingly over-incarcerated. If incarceration made a country safe we’d be the safest country in the world, but we’re not.”
Legalizing marijuana and ending incarceration for simple drug possession would be part of his proposal to reduce incarceration by 50 percent, which he pledged to do during a speech at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition Convention in July.
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem,” the plan says.
The drug policy proposals are part of Buttigieg’s plan to reduce “incarceration in this country without an increase in crime.”
He expanded on his plan at the Iowa State Fair in August, stating that he would reduce the prison population “using clemency powers, working with states, ending incarceration as a response to drug possession, and when we legalize marijuana—which we ought to do—we ought to have expungements as well for people whose incarceration is doing more harm than the original offense did, creating a whole generation of kids who have experienced the incarceration of a parent, which is a devastating experience to have.”
During a campaign stop in South Dakota in May, the candidate discussed his support for legalizing marijuana, abolishing private prisons and ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
After the governor of Iowa vetoed a bill in June that would have expanded the state’s medical cannabis program, Buttigieg wrote that thousands of patients “are struggling thanks to a limited medical marijuana program that doesn’t meet their health care needs” and that the veto “will only prolong their suffering.”
Thousands of patients in Iowa are struggling thanks to a limited medical marijuana program that doesn’t meet their health care needs — the governor’s veto will only prolong their suffering.https://t.co/jUN52FjldW
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) June 8, 2019
Buttigieg told an Iowa radio station that he supports reform in part because “a lot of nonviolent drug offenses, where the way we responded to it, the incarceration, is actually doing more harm to society and costing us more than the offense itself did.”
In Council Bluffs, @okayhenderson asked Pete Buttigieg if he supports legalizing marijuana– he told Kay, “I would,” adding, “we’ve just hit the point as a country, where there are a lot of offenses …doing more harm to society and costing us more than the offense itself did.” pic.twitter.com/eqj0CYNgI2
— DJ Judd (@DJJudd) July 20, 2019
“When it comes to American drug policy,” he added, “I don’t think anyone can look at it and say it’s looking well, and when you add to that the racial disparities around the way it’s been applied, we clearly have to take a very deep redesign about the way we think about this and many other drugs.”
During an interview with The Des Moines Register’s editorial board, Buttigieg said that “while there continue to be all kinds of harms associated with drug possession and use, it’s also the case that we have created—in an effort to deal with what amounts to a public health problem—we have created an even bigger problem. A justice problem and its form of a health problem.”
A former White House drug czar from the 1980s reacted to his support for broad decriminalization and said that the candidate’s plan will encourage more substance misuse.
In January 2020, Buttigieg talked about his support for drug policy reform and also said that the country would “be much better off, frankly, with regular marijuana” compared to synthetic cannabinoids that are available on the marketplace.
A high school student here in Newton, Iowa asks Buttigieg about drugs in school.
He comments on synthetic marijuana: "It's basically rat poison sprayed onto grass. You'd be much better off, frankly, with regular marijuana than this stuff."
— Dan Merica (@merica) January 15, 2020
Buttigieg said that he would be open to forming a strategic partnership with Mexico and send in American troops to deal with drug cartels if American lives were at risk and the country solicited that assistance.
“By the way, a lot of this is a question of the demand side on the United States. Part of what we do is make drug trafficking less profitable by walking away from the failed war on drugs here in the United States,” he said. “That is a policy that we know through experience hasn’t worked. We have got to do our part here at home, and partner with countries abroad.”
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
Prior to his official campaign announcement, Buttigieg seldom discussed cannabis issues.
“I think even in Indiana, criminal justice reform, including marijuana [legalization]. We’re probably there,” he told Indianapolis Monthly in November 2018. “Maybe not a 70 percent majority, but a majority.”
“I really think a state-wide campaign in Indiana would do well, especially on the criminal justice stuff,” he added. “To find common cause between the younger, Libertarian right that’s not so sure about the Republican party as an institution. And a more traditional, progressive coalition. I think you can get there on drugs. I think you can get there on a lot of things related to criminal justice.”
“The safe, regulated, and legal sale of marijuana is an idea whose time has come for the United States, as evidenced by voters demanding legalization in states across the country,” he told The Boston Globe.
Buttigieg also said that he believes voters in his home state of Indiana, which doesn’t even yet have a comprehensive medical cannabis law, are ready to legalize marijuana.
During an interview on the radio program The Breakfast Club one month before formally announcing his presidential bid, Buttigieg brought up criminal justice reform and stressed the importance of supporting individuals who are released from prison for non-violent drug offenses as the country moves toward ending the war on drugs.
“We know the war on drugs is important, right?” he said. “What are we going to do about—if we decide that it actually doesn’t make sense to incarcerated for unbelievably long amounts of time for non-violent drug offenses, what are we going to do for the people we already did that to?”
“Are they going to have an experience that’s not so different from the experience of the end of slavery that says, ‘OK, I took off your chains so I’m sure things are going to go great for you,’” he said. “Are we going to do the same thing to people coming out of incarceration and say, ‘OK, that’s over. Good luck.’ Or are we going to have some intention around lifting them up and empowering them to contribute and thrive in our communities and our society?”
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Some of Buttigieg’s most extensive public comments about marijuana are related to his own personal experience with cannabis and law enforcement and, specifically, how it’s shed light on the concept of white privilege.
During an interview at South By Southwest, the mayor talked about how he was caught with a joint while a student at Harvard University.
“I was standing outside my dorm. I was on my way home from a party or something,” he said. “I ran into a friend and he had an acquaintance with him, and we were chatting, and at some point I noticed that she was smoking a joint. And just out of curiosity—there was like a little bit left—I was like ‘Oh, is that…’ And she handed it to me.”
“At exactly, precisely this instant, a police car drives by—university police—and I thought, well, that’s gotta go over the shoulder,” he said.
The officer apparently berated Buttigieg, swearing at him and calling Harvard students arrogant.
Earlier today, in @TexasTribune discussion at @sxsw, @anamariecox asked me about when I first started to become aware of my white male privilege. I told a quick story about getting caught with a joint in college. #SXSW pic.twitter.com/RKX81jdJoM
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) March 10, 2019
“And then my hands are on the back of his trunk and he’s going through my pockets to see if I’ve got anything more on me,” he said. “He yells a few more obscenities, and just as I’m getting read to take a ride with him, he drives off. And that was it. It’s a funny story I can tell about my college days.”
But there was also an unfunny lesson to be learned, which has informed Buttigieg’s position on cannabis reform.
“A lot of people probably had the exact same experience, and would not have been believed, and would have been a lot worse than yelled at, and would not have slept in their own beds that night—and maybe would have been derailed in their college career because of it,” he said. “It’s one of many reasons why I think we have to end the war on drugs and move towards the legalization of marijuana.”
He also said that the odds of him facing more serious, lifelong consequences over the joint would be much greater if he wasn’t white.
“Think about that: That’s a funny story to me,” he said. “That can be a funny story to me. And if I were not white, the odds of that having been something that would have derailed my life are exponentially higher. So that’s one of many moments when I learned a thing or two about privilege.”
Separately, Buttigieg addressed how many times he has consumed cannabis in his book: “not many, but more than zero.”
That being said, he’s clearly abstaining on the campaign trail. He didn’t buy any marijuana during his trip to the Las Vegas dispensary, and he even declined a hit of an imaginary joint that was “passed” to him during an interview.
Marijuana Under A Buttigieg Presidency
Despite lacking a legislative history on cannabis reform, Buttigieg has grown increasingly comfortable identifying problems in federal drug policy and laying out specific solutions throughout his campaign. He’s made clear that his administration would support legalization if elected, and he’s gone further than many other candidates by backing broader drug decriminalization. His perspective on drug reform is also informed by an understanding of how these issues relate to mental health and racial justice.