Steve Bullock announced on May 14, 2019 that he was seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. He dropped out on December 2.
The Montana governor, who previously served as the state’s attorney general, supports medical cannabis, but his stance on legalizing marijuana for adult use is unclear. NORML gives Bullock a “B” grade based on his record.
This piece was last updated on December 2, 2019 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Montana’s medical cannabis program has undergone several revisions since voters first approved it in 2004.
As attorney general and a gubernatorial candidate in 2012, Bullock voiced opposition to a law that repealed the voter-led initiative and replaced it with a more tightly controlled system.
He said he voted in favor of the 2004 initiative and would also be voting to strike down the new law, SB 423, when voters got the opportunity in the form of a veto resolution initiative on the November 2012 ballot. (That measure did not succeed in repealing the law.)
“What we want to do is make sure those in legitimate medical need get the opportunity to get medical marijuana and those that don’t are precluded from doing so,” he said during an October 2012 gubernatorial debate.
“I don’t want unlimited grow operations and things like that. I don’t think anybody does,” he added. “I don’t think we want the chronic pain of ages 19 to 29 be the largest group [of medical cannabis patients]. We can put sideboards on this and we can actually make it as other states have done and it will make a difference.”
Days after that debate, Bullock was asked to respond to criticism from his opponent that he lacked leadership in the regulation of medical cannabis as attorney general. Bullock pushed back, noting that he organized meetings with law enforcement and sent a memo to the legislature outlining areas where he felt the system could be further reformed.
“We were working on solving the issue and we still have to do more to solve the issue,” he said. “We still have to make sure that we have a system where we can closely and tightly regulate it. Those that are entitled to it under the law, we want to get it, but we also don’t want abuses. And we can make that system.”
The year before he came out against the law to scale back the voter-approved medical cannabis system at the gubernatorial debate, Bullock argued in his capacity as attorney general that a lawsuit challenging the reform measure’s constitutionality was baseless.
The law, which was enacted without the then-governor’s signature, was meant to stymie the commercial market, prohibiting large scale manufacturers and shifting to a “grow-your-own” model that allowed registered patients to cultivate marijuana for personal use and let caregivers grow for up to three patients.
Industry advocates filed the lawsuit, calling the new system “unconstitutional.” In response, Bullock said “their arguments are based more on political and policy grounds than on sound constitutional principles.”
“Unfortunately, the narrow door the voters agreed to [in 2004] for compassionate use of medical marijuana was blown open by abuses and commercialization,” his office said at the time.
When that case was eventually settled in 2016, with the state Supreme Court upholding most of the law’s provisions, Bullock came to the defense of patients as governor. He sided with advocates who requested a 14-month delay of the enforcement of the court’s ruling.
“I am concerned about the ability of thousands of patients with serious medical conditions to access a treatment that has been approved by their doctors,” he said in a statement.
Voters approved a separate medical cannabis initiative in November 2016—eliminating patient limits for caregivers and the requirement for a second physician’s opinion before patients with chronic pain could access marijuana.
Bullock signed a bill in May 2017 that made a series of amendments to the new voter-approved initiative, including implementing seed-to-sale tracking systems, adding requirements for testing facilities and imposing fees on providers and dispensaries. It also removed a requirement that parents had to be the caregivers of minors.
Also that year, the Bullock signed a bill to impose the first taxes on medical marijuana sales. Cannabis providers would be taxed four percent on gross sales, dropping to two percent in June 2018.
In 2015, Bullock signed HB 463, a bill to dramatically reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, which are often used against people accused of committing drug offenses. It would require a conviction before police seize the assets of a property owner suspected of engaging in criminal activity.
On The Campaign Trail
Since launching his campaign, Bullock has largely taken a states’ rights approach to his marijuana platform, repeatedly arguing that the federal government should not intervene in state-legal programs.
Bullock on the legalization of medical marijuana: “I think this should be left up to the states” … “I think the federal government should get out of the way and this is a state by state decision.”
— Gary Grumbach (@GaryGrumbach) July 20, 2019
“I think this should be left up to the states,” he said in July. “I think the federal government should get out of the way and this is a state-by-state decision.”
He made similar remarks in an interview in October, stating that decriminalization “should be a state-by-state decision.”
LIGHTNING ROUND with @GovernorBullock on everything from Medicare to marijuana. Here’s an excerpt from our exclusive ‘Campaign Converstaions’. Tune in tonight. 🌩 @WeAreSinclair pic.twitter.com/suuVG9Wfz5
— Scott Thuman (@ScottThuman) October 14, 2019
“We’ve taken some great strides on medical marijuana in Montana, but the federal government needs to get out of the way,” he said.
During a campaign event in Iowa in November, the governor said “I am for medical marijuana.” He again added that the federal government shouldn’t dictate what states do with regard to cannabis policy.
“I am for medical marijuana,” Bullock says responding to a Q about that. He says the federal government should get out of the way to let states make programs for it.
— Adam Brewster (@adam_brew) November 17, 2019
“Gov. Bullock believes the criminalization of marijuana has ruined the lives of too many Americans and cost taxpayers too much money imprisoning non-violent offenders, and supports legalization and taxation of marijuana with appropriate regulations to prevent abuse,” his campaign told USA Today. “The governor will work to remove barriers at the federal level that conflict with states’ decisions to have medical marijuana or legalize it outright.”
At a speech before the National Press Club in August, Bullock noted that people of color are four times more likely to be arrested over marijuana than white people are.
Quotes And Social Media Posts
In April 2017, Bullock criticized the Justice Department under the Trump administration for being out of touch on the issue of cannabis and for indicating that it would crack down on state-legal marijuana programs.
“When it comes to marijuana, and marijuana for medicinal purposes—which Montana has—I think [Attorney General Jeff Sessions] is dang near a decade late,” he said. “That cat is kind of out of the bag. We’ve been spending a lot of time in our legislature saying: Let’s look at our overall correctional system.”
Advocates have also applauded Bullock for standing up for the rights of medical cannabis patients to use and possess firearms.
In a 2011 letter to then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, he wrote that a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) memo explicitly stating that medical marijuana patients are disqualified from owning guns even if they use cannabis in compliance with state law “implicates serious legal issues under the Second Amendment, and the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fifth Amendment.” It also “raises serious policy and practical concerns.”
“I am willing and prepared to work constructively with your staff on exploring reasonable solutions to the problem created by the [ATF] letter,” he wrote. “By working creatively and cooperatively, I believe we can find an approach that works for the states that have authorized the use of marijuana for medical purposes.”
“This would be much better than the type of unilateral proclamation represented by the ATF letter, which was issued without any advance notice or discussion with the elected officials who represent more than one-fourth of this nation’s population, and one-third of its states,” he said.
Besides posting about his letter to Holder, Bullock has refrained from posting about cannabis policy on social media.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
It does not appear that the governor has spoken publicly about any personal experience with marijuana. While discussing his support for the 2004 medical cannabis legalization initiative, however, he said that voters “all had somebody in mind,” indicating that he knows people who’ve used cannabis medicinally.
Marijuana Under A Bullock Presidency
Bullock’s lack of commentary on broader marijuana reform casts doubts on whether he’d support wide-ranging legislation to end federal prohibition. It also generally implies that cannabis reform would not be at the top of his agenda if elected.
As other candidates compete to demonstrate a strong interest in the issue, sponsoring or cosponsoring bills to fundamentally change the country’s marijuana laws with some talking about going beyond cannabis in terms of drug policy reform, Bullock stands out for his relative silence.
That said, Bullock has been relatively consistent in his support for patient access to medical marijuana and it appears likely that states with such programs would be protected from federal interference under a Bullock administration.
Idaho Senator Files Bill To Decriminalize Drug Possession
A new bill filed by an Idaho senator would decriminalize possession of currently illegal drugs in the state, though it also contains a provision that advocates consider troubling, allowing the government to involuntarily commit people convicted of certain offenses to treatment.
Sen. Grant Burgoyne (D) introduced the legislation, which would remove criminal penalties for drug use and possession by “requiring intention to deliver for criminal trafficking.”
Burgoyne told Marijuana Moment the bill has been referred to the Judiciary and Rules Committee, where Chairman Todd Lakey (R) has agreed to hold a hearing on it.
“We have too much of a focus on prosecution and punishment and not enough on treatment,” Burgoyne said in a separate interview with KTVB. “We don’t have a functioning mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment capability for the needs of our people. We need new strategies, how we draw the lines between what is criminal conduct and what is not criminal conduct when it comes to drug possession and usage.”
The bill sets different possession thresholds for different drugs. Having just two grams of heroin could be considered trafficking, while for cocaine and methamphetamine, the amount is set at 28 grams. One pound of marijuana, or 25 plants, could be treated as a trafficking offense.
Any amount of LSD could be considered a trafficking offense, as could any amount of a “simulated controlled substance,” possibly referring to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Using drugs with friends would also be harshly penalized, as “sharing or providing a controlled substance for use by another person shall constitute intent to deliver.”
“This will reduce arrests, but how much is very hard to predict,” Burgoyne told Marijuana Moment. “Unfortunately, illegal drug use, even in private, is too often accompanied by the commission of other crimes, which my bill does not excuse and which could lead to arrest.”
Burgoyne’s bill would also allow people using drugs to be “placed in protective custody” or “admitted for community-assisted behavioral health treatment.” This would apply to people under the influence and in various circumstances, such as being pregnant, posing a risk to themselves or others or in withdrawal.
But existing research on mandatory drug treatment suggests it is not helpful for people with substance use disorder. A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal, for example, found that when people are ordered to undergo drug treatment without their informed consent, the practice does more harm than good and does not reduce their drug use. The researchers explained that harm reduction efforts like syringe exchanges and drug education were more effective.
“Although there is some theoretical danger of adverse consequences to mandated drug treatment, we already mandate it for prisoners with drug issues,” Burgoyne said. “I’d like to shift treatment out of our jails and prisons to a more appropriate place. Furthermore, a civil commitment is not an easy thing to obtain, and I think our courts will be conservative in how they handle them.”
If the senator’s legislation passes, it remains to be seen what effect it would have on drug arrest rates in Idaho. According to the FBI, in 2017 Idaho had 8,432 arrests for “drug abuse violations,” which is a little over 16 percent of all arrests that year.
Burgoyne’s reform proposal comes amid a growing national debate about the value of decriminalizing drug use over more arrests. Last year in May, Denver became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize personal use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms. Oakland’s City Council followed the next month by decriminalizing a wide range of psychedelics.
Advocates are also raising the issue on the national stage. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) proposed decriminalizing drug consumption in November. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has proposed decriminalizing drug possession and reducing sentences. His primary opponent, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), recently called for legalizing and regulating drugs in order to treat substance misuse as a public health issue.
Photo coutersy of Markus Spiske.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Pushes For Marijuana Legalization In Annual Speech
The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) repeated his call for marijuana legalization in his annual State of the Territory address.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who called the legislature into a special session last month to begin taking up cannabis reform legislation, stressed that establishing a commercial marijuana market would bring in needed tax revenue to support a variety of government programs.
The proposed amendment to the territory’s existing medical cannabis law, which Bryan signed last year, would allow adults 21 and older to obtain a license from the government in order to purchase and cultivate marijuana. It would also promote participation in the industry by small farmers and local businesses, as well as providing for automatic expungements of prior cannabis convictions.
“Most importantly, it creates a taxing regime for the local industry that will generate higher revenues than the current law allows,” he said in the speech last Monday, noting that tax revenue will be distributed between the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) fund (75 percent), implementation of regulations (20 percent) and services for senior citizens (5 percent).
“The revenues generated from this industry can benefit the system as a direct contribution,” the governor said. “However, the goal is to create a funding stream that is reliable enough to ultimately support a revenue bond that can provide a needed cash infusion to the system.”
Watch Bryan’s marijuana comments, first reported by Vibe High, about 36:24 into the video below:
“This is by no means the panacea or final solution for the GERS crisis, but a small part of a larger solution,” he continued. “It begins the process of generating the new revenues required to stave off the insolvency of the System. It takes existing policy, approved by this body, and leverages it to support this critical area of need.”
“We must acknowledge the opportunities that regulated expansion of this industry can bring to the territory and the potential benefits to the GERS,” he said. “I urge this body to take the necessary action to approve the amending legislation we have proposed.”
Bryan’s proposal calls for a 30 percent tax on marijuana sales, with revenue expected to be upwards of $20 million annually. His administration is also expecting the policy change to stimulate tourism, and visitors interested in participating in the market would be charged a $10 per day fee to access legal cannabis.
This year has seen several governors voice support for marijuana reform during their high-profile annual addresses and in legislative agendas. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) reaffirmed his commitment to legalization in his State of the State speech and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) pledged to pursue decriminalization, for example.
In New Mexico, the governor included legalization in her 2020 agenda, and lawmakers followed suit by filing a cannabis reform bill on Thursday. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) proposed legalizing marijuana through a state-run model in a budget proposal released on Thursday.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.
Tulsi Gabbard Endorses Legalizing Drugs
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is calling for the U.S. to legalize currently illicit drugs.
“If we take that step to legalize and regulate, then we’re no longer treating people who are struggling with substance addiction and abuse as criminals and instead getting them the help that they need,” the 2020 presidential candidate said at a campaign stop in Merrimack, New Hampshire on Friday.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo element courtesy of Lorie Shaull.