Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a member of Congress since 2013 and previously a Hawaii state legislator and Honolulu city councilmember, announced she is seeking the Democratic Party’s 2020 nomination for president on January 11, 2019.
In her formal campaign launch speech, she criticized a criminal justice system that “puts people in prison for smoking marijuana while allowing corporations like Purdue Pharma, who are responsible for the opioid-related deaths of thousands of people, to walk away scot-free with their coffers full.”
This piece was last updated on August 22, 2019 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race. It will continue to be updated on a rolling basis.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Gabbard has cosponsored a large number of cannabis-related bills during her time in Congress, and she was the lead sponsor of a measure to require the federal government to study the impact of state marijuana legalization, which she reintroduced in April 2019.
Also that month, the congresswoman introduced legislation that’s designed to end prohibition by federally descheduling marijuana.
“This is affecting those dealing with opioid addiction, this is affecting farmers, this is affecting small business owners, this affecting our veterans and those who are locked up in our broken criminal justice system because of this prohibition,” Gabbard said in an interview while discussing her bill. “That’s what my bill seeks to do: end prohibition very simply.”
Gabbard signed onto far-reaching legislation to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and withhold federal funds from states that disproportionately enforce cannabis laws in 2018 and 2019.
She also cosponsored a bill filed by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), chair of the Judiciary Committee, that would similarly deschedule marijuana but would also institute a federal tax on cannabis sales with some funds being directed toward programs to repair the harms of the war on drugs.
“Millions of Americans have fallen victim to the failed War on Drugs, tearing families apart, disproportionately harming minority communities, and overcrowding an already strained prison system. Marijuana use is a personal choice and should not be a criminal act,” she said in a press release about the legislation. “For many years I have worked to end the marijuana prohibition and am proud to push this legislation forward that will begin to right the wrongs of the past, and invest in communities who have been most harmed.”
In July 2019, Gabbard introduced a wide-ranging hemp bill that calls on multiple federal agencies to issue guidelines and encourage federal research into the crop’s many potential uses, including to clean up nuclear contamination, treat conditions that commonly afflict veterans such as post-traumatic stress disorder and incorporate it into public school lunches.
“The hemp industry is poised to grow rapidly, having a billion dollar impact on the U.S. economy and creating thousands of jobs,” she said in a press release. “Hemp-based materials have the potential to transform industries from health care to domestic manufacturing to affordable, sustainable housing construction, and more.”
Other bills she’s backed would shield medical and recreational marijuana states from federal interference, legalize industrial hemp, protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, provide tax fairness for the cannabis industry, address various aspects of the federal-state marijuana policy gap, remove roadblocks to research and exempt CBD from the CSA.
She was the lead Democratic cosponsor of another measure to federally deschedule marijuana.
Gabbard, who served in a medical unit in the Hawaii Army National Guard, has also cosponsored several pieces of legislation aimed at expanding access to medical cannabis for veterans. That includes one bill that would block the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from denying benefits to patients who use marijuana, another that would require the VA to survey patients and caregivers on cannabis use and a bill that would require VA to conduct clinical trials on the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis for veterans.
She signed onto a House resolution meant to express the chamber’s sentiment that the drug war has failed and apologize to “individuals and communities that were victimized by this policy.” She also cosponsored a separate resolution calling on states to “address disparities in the cannabis marketplace participation and to address, reverse, and repair the most egregious effects of the war on drugs on communities of color, in particular to those who now hold criminal records for a substance that is now legal and regulated.”
Gabbard has also consistently voted to support marijuana amendments on the House floor. For example, she supported two measures to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference as well as a broader proposal to shield all state marijuana laws, including those allowing recreational use. She voted yes on three separate amendments to allow military veterans to get medical cannabis recommendations from their Department of Veterans Affairs doctors. A measure to protect banks from being punished for working with marijuana businesses from businesses also got an aye from Gabbard. And she supported a proposal to shield people complying with state CBD medical cannabis laws from federal enforcement, as well as four separate amendments to protect state industrial hemp programs from interference.
On The Campaign Trail
“The fact that marijuana’s still a Schedule I drug is unacceptable in the harm that it is causing to the people of our country and to taxpayers as well,” Gabbard told Marijuana Moment in a March 2019 interview.
“Regardless of who [the Democratic presidential nominee] is, this is a major issue I’m putting at the forefront of my campaign and continuing the work that I’ve been doing in Congress to bring about this change,” she said. “It’s something I’ve continued to bring up in bigger cities as well as small towns in New Hampshire and Iowa and other states, and it’s an issue that is very exciting to voters who believe, as I do, that we’ve got to make this happen.”
The candidate touted legislation she introduced to deschedule cannabis, directing supporters to contribute to her campaign.
60% of voters support marijuana legalization—great to see Florida coming around! We just introduced a bill to end federal #marijuana prohibition because American citizens should not be made into criminals for choosing to smoke marijuana. Join us https://t.co/d4qbwO4Ip4#TULSI2020
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) March 8, 2019
During a campaign stop in Iowa, she said, “Stop throwing people in prison for smoking a joint and instead go after those like Purdue Pharma who are proliferating their opioids on our streets and taking people’s lives.”
During a televised town hall event, Gabbard declined to rule out pushing for broader decriminalization legislation to extend to drugs besides marijuana.
“The drug pushers at Big Pharma have enough crooked politicians in their pocket to maintain the appearance of legality – that’s the only difference between them & every other global drug cartel,” the congresswoman said in a tweet in March 2019. “I’m for legalizing marijuana & holding Big Pharma accountable.”
The drug pushers at Big Pharma have enough crooked politicians in their pocket to maintain the appearance of legality – that’s the only difference between them & every other global drug cartel. I’m for legalizing marijuana & holding Big Pharma accountablehttps://t.co/V4e5ypvyKq
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) March 21, 2019
She also discussed hemp, writing that the crop “played a vital role in the American economy through the early 1900’s until it was replaced w/ fossil fuel products.”
Hemp played a vital role in the American economy through the early 1900’s until it was replaced w/ fossil fuel products. Versatile & environmentally friendly, it represents great opportunity for small farmers. It’s time to bring it back!https://t.co/rzeDH6O0Gn
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) April 11, 2019
“Versatile & environmentally friendly, it represents great opportunity for small farmers,” she said. “It’s time to bring it back!”
Gabbard sought donations with a marijuana-themed campaign email blast on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20. Supporters were given options to contribute $4.20, $14.20, $42.00 and $420.00.
“The recent arrest of a grandmother at the Dallas Fort Worth airport for possession of CBD oil—a resin from the cannabis plant used to treat arthritis and other ailments—underscores the absurdity and hypocrisy of federal laws related to marijuana,” she said in a tweet that included an accompanying video.
The recent arrest of a grandmother at the Dallas Fort Worth airport for possession of CBD oil—a resin from the cannabis plant used to treat arthritis and other ailments —underscores the absurdity and hypocrisy of federal laws related to marijuana. pic.twitter.com/SzuRNQIeNQ
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) May 30, 2019
Gabbard said her legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition would protect veterans from being “penalized or risk losing their VA benefits for working in the state-legalized cannabis industry.”
These veterans should not be penalized or risk losing their VA benefits for working in the state-legalized cannabis industry.
This must be corrected immediately by the VA, and Congress must pass my bipartisan Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. (2/2)
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) June 6, 2019
“As president I’ll end the failed war on drugs, legalize marijuana, end cash bail, and ban private prisons and bring about real criminal justice reform,” Gabbard said.
As president I’ll end the failed war on drugs, legalize marijuana, end cash bail, and ban private prisons and bring about real criminal justice reform. I’ll crack down on the overreaching intel agencies and big tech monopolies who threaten our civil liberties and free speech pic.twitter.com/jzsETuCawI
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) July 9, 2019
During a Democratic presidential debate in July 2019, Gabbard took a hit at fellow contender Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) over her record as a prosecutor who enforced marijana prohibition and once opposed legalization while later joking about her own cannabis consumption.
Gabbard said during a post-debate interview that she is “deeply concerned about this record,” referring to the senator’s prosecutorial history. “There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
“Marijuana use is a personal choice, not a criminal act,” the congresswoman said in a campaign video.
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
After then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era Justice Department guidance on cannabis enforcement priorities in early 2018, she posted an extensive thread about why the move “will exacerbate an inhumane, ineffective system that tears families apart.
Veterans suffering from invisible wounds like Post-Traumatic Stress and chronic pain, or with addiction to opioids, deserve our commitment to researching every possible treatment to help them, and Sessions is failing them.
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) January 4, 2018
Sessions’ actions to protect the bottom lines of the for-profit private prison industry, and Big Pharma whose opioids and drugs flourish in part due to the marijuana prohibition, while trampling on states' rights and turning everyday Americans into criminals is an injustice.
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) January 4, 2018
States with medical marijuana have seen a correlating drop in opioid-related deaths. Sessions' decision will exacerbate an inhumane, ineffective system that tears families apart. We need criminal justice reform that reduces recidivism and the share of people that we lock up.
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) January 4, 2018
Later in the year, she turned her attention on Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) after he vetoed legislation that would have made opioid misuse a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. Gabbard has repeatedly touted research demonstrating that legal access to cannabis can reduce opioid overdoses and prescriptions, potentially mitigating a national drug crisis.
Gov Ige vetoed the bill saying people need to go thru bureaucratic red-tape & apply for approval from HI Dept of Health instead – knowing DOH won't approve because they don't think there's evidence that medical marijuana can effectively help those suffering from opioid addiction.
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) July 12, 2018
“With such a stark increase in prescription opioid use and dependence, heroin and synthetic drug overdose, and emergency room visits over the last decade, we must allow legal access to medical marijuana to help prevent opioid addiction and opioid-related deaths,” Gabbard said in a press release. “Understanding that people’s lives are at stake, I urge Governor Ige to reconsider and sign this legislation into law now.”
She also talked about the relationship between marijuana laws and opioid overdoses on Joe Rogan’s podcast.
“There are states that have legalized, whether it’s just medical or full legalization, there has proven to be a direct correlation to a drastic reduction in opioid-related deaths in those states where people have access,” she said. “If we know this, and every one of the leaders in this country are so concerned about this opioid epidemic, why hasn’t this been brought forward?”
As the opioid addiction epidemic continues to spread across the country, states that have legalized medical marijuana have seen addiction rates drop and opioid abuse deaths decrease by over 20%. 1/2
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) November 28, 2017
I’m calling on @HHSGov to allow medical marijuana to serve as an alternative pain management treatment to opioids to help curb the ongoing opioid epidemic. 2/2
— Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiPress) November 28, 2017
In a 2017 interview with SFGate, the congresswoman discussed legislation she cosponsored to remove marijuana from the CSA, saying that current federal cannabis policies “have turned everyday Americans into criminals, torn families apart, and wasted huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate people for nonviolent marijuana charges.”
“The reality is, whether or not any individual chooses to consume cannabis is irrelevant. The important question is, should we really be sending people to jail and turning them into criminals for using a substance that is far less dangerous and harmful than alcohol? The answer is no. The fiscal and social impacts of our current policy, are having devastating effects on individuals and our communities and are only perpetuating the problem.”
Touting her Marijuana Data Collection Act on the House floor, Gabbard said “federal policies should be based on actual science and fact, not misplaced stigma and outdated myths.”
“For decades, bad data and misinformation have fueled the failed War on Drugs that’s wasted billions of taxpayer dollars incarcerating Americans for non-violent marijuana charges,” she said. “Our outdated marijuana policies have turned everyday Americans into criminals, strained our criminal justice system, cost taxpayers tremendously, and torn families apart—all for a substance that’s proven to be far less harmful and dangerous than alcohol.”
Prior to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized industrial hemp, the congresswoman spoke out in support of allowing farmers to cultivate the crop.
Hemp is an incredibly versatile and environmentally restorative crop that has great potential – to make things like clothing, paper, houses and more. We must eliminate the obstacles blocking farmers and innovators from pursuing these opportunities.https://t.co/vrSjce36Um
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) October 14, 2018
“Our nation should empower our local farmers by allowing them to grow, cultivate and research industrial hemp that will create opportunity and strengthen our economy,” she said in a press release. “The DEA must honor and uphold the Congressional intent of federal legislation that allows states, like Hawai‘i, to establish programs to research the benefits, cultivation, and market of industrial hemp.”
She also tweeted that one answer to plastic trash pollution of the ocean is to use more “biodegradable materials like hemp.”
Seeing trash in the ocean when I was out surfing as a kid was one of my first motivations to get into public service. What's happening in our oceans is devastating. One answer to plastic pollution is biodegradable materials like hemp. https://t.co/sXreSK1EnJ
— Tulsi Gabbard (@TulsiGabbard) February 9, 2019
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Gabbard told Marijuana Moment in an interview that she has not personally tried marijuana.
“I don’t smoke marijuana. I never have,” she said. “But I believe firmly in every person’s freedom to make their own choices, and that people should not be thrown in jail and incarcerated or made into criminals for choosing to smoke marijuana whether it be for medicinal and non-medicinal purposes.”
Marijuana Under A Gabbard Presidency
Gabbard’s cosponsorship of a long list of cannabis reform bills and continual focus on the issue in public statements and social media posts indicate she would be an especially marijuana-friendly president if she were to earn the Democratic nomination and win the 2020 election.
Photo element courtesy of Lorie Shaull.
CDC Official Pushes Back Against Congressman Linking Legal Marijuana To Vaping Deaths
A top official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasized on Wednesday that the majority of vaping-related injuries associated with THC-containing cartridges are being traced back to the illicit market, rather than state-legal cannabis shops.
During a hearing before the House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) argued that the spike in vaping issues throughout the country demonstrates that states prematurely implemented legal marijuana markets, putting consumers and young people in particular at risk.
But that’s not quite an accurate reflection of what preliminary data has shown, CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said in reply.
“Is the feeling that the states have gone ahead basically approving these THC-containing substances through regulation when they were basically unhealthy?” Harris asked. “They basically didn’t have the scientific information about whether this was safe, but they were approving these compounds—is that right?”
“I mean they were legally sold, is that what you’re saying? They were legally sold, they ended up hurting our children and these are when the states claim, ‘don’t worry, it’s all safe, we’ll regulate it,’’” he continued. “We don’t have the knowledge to know what’s safe and what isn’t, do we?”
While there are knowledge gaps, Schuchat explained that legal dispensaries don’t appear to be the hub of contaminated products.
“Let me clarify, for the lung injury outbreak, while the vast majority report using THC-containing pre-filled cartridges, they report getting them from informal sources or off the street, not necessarily from licensed dispensaries,” Schuchat said. “So far that’s what we found, but we’re still gathering data.”
Harris also asked the official whether the roughly eight percent of adolescents who report using THC-containing vaping products are using them for medical or recreational purposes, seemingly assuming that those individuals obtained them from state-legal sources and not the illicit market.
“We probably ought to study the use of marijuana a little bit more before we go willy-nilly and make it available recreationally throughout the country,” Harris said. “There’s a big discussion about medical versus recreational, are these eight or nine percent, are they using it because they have the usual indications that people claim for medical marijuana or are they just using it recreationally? What’s your feeling, doc?”
“We don’t have data. There’s a lot of anecdote,” Schuchat replied. “But one thing I would say is there’s a lot of debate out there about whether legal status makes things better or worse in the states because some of our concerns right now are about the counterfeit and black market—whether the substances that are in products that are completely unregulated by the states are riskier than the products that are regulated by the states.”
“I don’t think we have good data either way, but that’s a discussion that’s happening,” she said.
Harris followed up by asking whether states are regulating THC cartridges, and the CDC official said that’s the case in states where such products are legal but that each state “has to set up their own plan on how they’re going to do the regulation.”
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has also discussed regulatory limitations associated with having a state-by-state approach and argued that states are ill-equipped when it comes to enforcement. Gottlieb said last week that the federal government should be involved in regulating state markets when it comes to policies on THC potency and permitted methods of consumption, for example, though he argued that vaping cannabis should be banned outright.
One regulation that’s enforced across the board in adult-use states is a 21 and older age requirement to purchase cannabis products. And experts believe that the reason most lung injuries and deaths are being linked to “informal sources” is because some illicit producers are adding thickening agents to the THC oil that are dangerous to inhale, which is something that would be prohibited under quality control standards imposed in legal marijuana markets.
There have been rare instances where individuals who experienced lung problems reported purchasing vaping products from licensed dispensary, including a case in Oregon that led to a man’s death, but regulators have stressed that it remains unclear whether those legally obtained products are at fault.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean the individual got sick from products that they had purchased at these dispensaries, we just know that the individual shopped at a couple of dispensaries prior to getting ill,” Jonathan Modie, spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority, told Willamette Week. “We’re still waiting to get samples of the products and then we send that off for testing.”
CDC released a report last week that recommended people abstain from using vaporizer products that contain THC, noting the prevalence of cases where the compound was involved. The agency added that the “possibility that nicotine-containing products play a role in this outbreak cannot be excluded” and therefore it “continues to recommend that persons consider refraining from using e-cigarette, or vaping, products that contain nicotine.”
Some observers neglected to acknowledge that nuance, however, with prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana and Politico nonetheless reporting that CDC advised against the use of cannabis vaping products exclusively.
MASSIVE: The CDC has narrowed its warning on vaping, urging Americans to only avoid vaping THC products.
Statement forthcoming. pic.twitter.com/ofMqdp0TD7
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) October 11, 2019
The CDC is now exclusively warning people not to vape THC amid the outbreak of related lung illnesses. Previous guidance advised against the use of all e-cigarette products https://t.co/Y5qVfMUNep
— Brianna Ehley (@Briannaehley) October 11, 2019
Earlier in Wednesday’s House subcommittee hearing, lawmakers asked about CDC’s research efforts into the health risks of THC, and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) expressed surprise after learning that CDC isn’t actively funding any studies into the subject.
“We don’t have a marijuana funding line through your appropriations,” Schuchat said. “We have broader lines that we use to support the core work that we do, but we’re not funded to do research on marijuana.”
Herrera Beutler (R-WA) said she’s “ready to help step up and get you what you need,” but that “you’re the doctors and the researchers” and the committee needs CDC’s help in order to best steer resources.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/House Appropriations.
New Mexico Governor’s Working Group Releases Marijuana Legalization Proposal
A governor-appointed working group in New Mexico released its recommendations for a legal marijuana market on Wednesday.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) formed the group in June, urging the panel of experts to develop a legalization plan ahead of the next legislative session, which begins in January 2020 and last just 30 days. That means New Mexico could be the next state in the U.S. to legalize early next year.
The group’s report includes recommendations touching on everything from packaging requirements to promoting social equity in the industry to the allocation of tax revenue from cannabis sales.
“Through more than 30 hours of public meetings across the state, and with the help of more than 200 pages of public comment, the members explored every aspect of legalization, both good and bad,” Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, chair of the working group, said in a press release. “As our report makes clear, New Mexico can and should learn from missteps in other states and we have both the ingenuity, talent, and healthy level of skepticism required to get it right.”
An independent economist estimated that the state would gain 11,000 jobs and sales would reach $620 million by the fifth year of legalization’s implementation. The combined estimated tax revenue from medical and recreational cannabis sales would be $100 million annually.
Among the recommendations are policies for automatic expungements of marijuana possession convictions, putting patients first by exempting medical cannabis from taxes, setting product requirements and funding a low-income patient subsidy program to lower the cost of marijuana.
Citing law enforcement concerns, the group also suggested prohibiting home cultivation or requiring licensing for those who wish to grow their own. Medical cannabis patients would still be allowed to cultivate their plants as under current law, and that activity by other people would at least be decriminalized for up to six plants “to remove felony criminal implications for low-level personal production.”
Here’s a summary of some of the 23-member group’s other recommendations:
—Ensure that cannabis products are clearly labeled to reflect accurate dosing and maintain strong testing standards.
—Prohibit marijuana advertisements that feature children, cartoons or anything that would entice youth.
—Deter illicit markets by prohibiting jurisdictions from opting out of allowing cannabis businesses, but allow them to impose certain regulations such as hours of operation and zoning restrictions.
—Use tax revenue to fund law enforcement training to identify drug-impaired driving.
—Set aside funds to help provide access to capital for communities and small businesses to launch cannabis companies.
—Use revenue to to “support housing, job training and education programs statewide.”
—Set low fees for “micro business” licenses so that small family farms and entrepreneurs can enter the market.
—Study the demographics of the industry to ensure equity.
— Set aside funds for local jurisdictions to use revenue in the manner they see fit.
—Impose a tax rate that’s no more than 20 percent, with the goal being a total 17 percent tax rate.
—Impose penalties for selling cannabis to minors, consuming in a vehicle and any other unlicensed sales.
“Together, we believe the framework we are submitting is right for New Mexico,” Davis said in a letter to to the governor. “It is clear that we have both the necessary apprehension that goes with this venture, as well as the talent and capital to make this happen the right way.”
“Done well, we will create more than 11,000 new jobs—more than education and mining combined—in communities statewide,” he said. “And by giving local leaders the ability to regulate the time, place and manner of retail, we preserve important local control options so that Albuquerque and Roswell can develop with this industry on their own terms.”
The working group’s report comes months after the House passed a legalization bill that would provide for legal sales to be conducted mostly through state-run stores. That legislation advanced in a Senate committee but later stalled. In September, the group said it opposed the idea of having the government control the marijuana market.
Around the time that lawmakers were working on a legalization measure, the legislature passed a more limited bill to decriminalize cannabis possession, which the governor signed in April. The law officially took effect on July 1.
While it’s yet to be seen what policy recommendations make it into next year’s legislation, New Mexico is one of several states competing to have the most comprehensive and thoughtful legalization models in the country. Illinois lawmakers touted their cannabis law as the new gold standard when the governor signed a legalization bill into law in June, and a pair of Pennsylvania senators similarly argued that legislation they introduced on Tuesday would be superior to existing regulatory schemes.
Read the New Mexico working group’s marijuana report below:
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Where Canada’s Political Parties Stand On Marijuana And Drugs Ahead Of The Election
Canadian voters will decide on Monday whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party will retain control of the federal government, or if one of several competing parties will get a chance to take over.
The result of the election could have a variety of implications for marijuana policy about one year after the country legalized cannabis—a reform move that Trudeau campaigned on in 2015.
But it’s not just marijuana positions that separate the parties, as broader drug policy issues have also exposed differences in the direction Canada may take depending on which party controls the House of Commons.
Here’s a breakdown of where each party and their respective leaders stand on drug policy.
Liberal Party: Justin Trudeau
During his first campaign for prime minister, Trudeau pledged to legalize cannabis nationwide if elected—and while it didn’t materialize as quickly as he’d anticipated, marijuana prohibition was officially ended for adults in October 2018.
But while the prime minister scored points with advocates for making good on his promise, he’s disappointed others with the specifics of its implementation and for repeatedly declining to give his support to broader drug decriminalization efforts.
Trudeau was asked in February 2018 whether his administration would consider lifting criminal penalties for opioid possession as a means to combat the drug crisis. He responded that the policy is “not a step that Canada is looking at taking at this point.”
“It’s not part of the plan,” Trudeau, who admitted to using cannabis while serving in the House of Commons, said. “There are many steps we can and have taken.”
He made similar comments when he was asked about the same issue the previous year, stating that the country “is not looking at decriminalization or legalization of any other drugs other than what we’re doing with marijuana.”
The reasoning, Trudeau said, is because “there’s a lot of other tools that we are using right now instead.”
“We are going to focus on getting the control and regulation of [the] marijuana regime right, and that’s quite a handful right now,” he said. “We’re not looking at any other steps.”
Trudeau’s views on the issue don’t necessarily align with those of his party, however. Liberal delegates voted in favor of a resolution that sought to remove criminal penalties for drug offenses at a convention last year, hoping to put the policy on the party’s campaign platform for this upcoming election.
“The Government of Canada should treat drug abuse as a health issue, expand treatment and harm reduction services and re-classify low-level drug possession and consumption as administrative violations,” the measure stated.
Following the vote, however, Trudeau said at a press conference that “it’s not part of our plans.”
The party did ultimately adopt a formal platform backing certain harm reduction policies such as safe consumption sites and stipulating that first-time non-violent drug offenders should be diverted to drug treatment court in order to “help drug users get quick access to treatment, and to prevent more serious crimes.”
During a debate with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer last month, decriminalization came up again. While Trudeau initially said it wasn’t on the party’s agenda “at the moment,” he later clarified in a press scrum that “we will not be further decriminalizing any drugs other than cannabis.”
Bill Blair, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, said in April 2018 that the government had “no plans to legalize or decriminalize any other drugs” besides marijuana.
But despite opposition from the administration, some Liberal lawmakers have been undeterred. MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith introduced a bill in July that would repeal sections of federal drug law that concern possession, effectively decriminalizing the controlled substances.
And the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, which is controlled by the majority Liberals, issued a report in June recommending the government “work with provinces, territories, municipalities and Indigenous communities and law enforcement agencies to decriminalize the simple possession of small quantities of illicit substances.”
Conservative Party: Andrew Scheer
All but one member of the Conservative Party, including Scheer, voted against legalizing marijuana last year. However, if elected to the majority, Scheer said lawmakers wouldn’t seek to overturn the law.
“We will maintain…the fact that cannabis is legal, we are not going to change that and we do support the idea of people having those records pardoned” for prior cannabis offenses, he said in June.
Scheer asked about position on cannabis. Says he won’t change legal status but will spend on research on effects and prevent children from getting it.
— Adam Hunter (@AHiddyCBC) June 25, 2019
While he’s pledged to uphold the legal marijuana program, the Conservative leader said during a debate with Trudeau that he’d use funds for cannabis tax revenue to increase enforcement against the illicit market. Scheer also accused the prime minister of promoting a “secret agenda” to decriminalize and legalize “hard drugs.”
The party also pushed advertisements on Facebook that falsely accused the Liberals of seeking to “legalize hard drugs.”
“This is yet another example of Conservatives copying the American right-wing playbook, spreading false information to scare and mislead voters,” Liberal Party spokesperson Joe Pickerill said in response to the ads.
Conservative Senators visited Washington, D.C. to meet with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April 2018. The purpose of the trip, according to a press release, was to investigate the “predictable consequences of legalization for Canadians traveling to the United States” by discussing the matter with the anti-marijuana official.
Though Scheer and other Conservative lawmakers have derided drug policy proposals from the Liberals, their official party platform does stress the need to craft drug laws that treat addiction as a public health issue.
“To help more Canadians recover from addiction, we will revise the federal government’s substance abuse policy framework to make recovery its overarching goal,” the platform states. “We will reorient the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy towards ensuring that every addict has the opportunity to recover from their addiction and to lead a drug-free life and that all policies that fall under the Strategy have recovery as their objective.”
Conservatives also voiced support for expanding drug treatment facilities, funding education campaigns that encourage young people to avoid illicit substances and partnering with school districts and other institutions to clean up used needles.
New Democratic Party (NDP): Jagmeet Singh
All NDP lawmakers present for the vote on the cannabis legalization bill supported it. The party has not shied away from broader drug decriminalization, and members have emphasized the need to promote restorative justice in Canada’s marijuana program.
“New Democrats believe that there is much more we can do to save lives and support those struggling with opioids,” the party’s platform reads. “In government, we will declare a public health emergency and commit to working with all levels of government, experts and Canadians to end the criminalization and stigma of drug addiction, so that people struggling with addiction can get the help they need without fear of arrest, while getting tough on the real criminals—those who traffic in and profit from illegal drugs.”
The platform voiced support for expanding overdose prevention facilities and investigating the role of pharmaceutical companies in the opioid crisis and ensuring that the public is compensated if the industry is found culpable.
“We will also proactively expunge criminal records for Canadians convicted of minor cannabis possession,” NDP said. “With cannabis now legal in Canada, too many people are still burdened with criminal records for simple possession—records that mean real hardships that affect their employment opportunities and their ability to travel. These records for minor cannabis possession will be completely erased, allowing people to get on with building their lives.”
Singh has repeatedly proposed decriminalization as a solution to the country’s drug problems.
“I can tell you from personal experience, but I can also show you—and I’m sure you all know that there’s a preponderance of evidence when we look at those folks that are being charged with personal possession of a controlled substance people that are being arrested and incarcerated, these are folks that are struggling with issues of mental health of addiction and poverty,” Singh said in November 2017. “To me poverty, mental health and addictions don’t sound like criminal justice problems. They sound to me like a social justice problem that should be dealt with like a social justice problem.”
“That’s why I’m calling for the decriminalization of all personal possession offenses when it comes to drugs, to make a difference in the lives of people and actually bring real change,” he said.
During a debate as Singh was competing to become leader of NDP, he emphasized his decriminalization proposal.
“I would call for the immediate decriminalization of all personal possession offenses when it comes to drugs. Period,” he said.
NDP has also been critical of the rollout of Canada’s legal marijuana law, with the party writing in September that “Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had plenty of time to get this right” and it’s “not enough,” referring to the limited number of pardons for cannabis convictions that the government had issued.
Justin Trudeau's Liberals had plenty of time to get this right. This is not enough. The NDP is going to keep fighting for criminal records for Canadians convicted of minor cannabis possession to be expunged.https://t.co/jh55LJmpbe
— NDP (@NDP) September 9, 2019
“The NDP is going to keep fighting for criminal records for Canadians convicted of minor cannabis possession to be expunged,” they said.
NDP MP Don Davies unsuccessfully tried to get unanimous consent for a measure to “immediately provide pardons for those burdened by criminal records for cannabis offenses that will soon be legal” shortly after the legalization bill passed.
“For some people in Canada, and in some places, pot has been effectively legal for years,” Singh said in October 2018. “But depending on who you are, the color of your skin, and where you live, there’s a different set of rules.”
With #CannabisLegalization let's remember that pot has been effectively legal for some Canadians for years while others, predominately Indigenous & racialized ppl, are still being punished by criminal records affecting their daily lives. Let's delete these records once & for all: pic.twitter.com/wdXBiJCui7
— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) October 16, 2018
A private member bill introduced by NDP MP Murray Rankin to expunge criminal records for cannabis possession was rejected by Liberal lawmakers in May despite agreement that minority communities have been disproportionately impacted by federal drug laws.
In May, NDP urged their Liberal colleagues to answer questions about the impact of medical cannabis taxes on patients.
“The Liberal tax on medical cannabis is unfair and damaging to the health of patients. It shows that the Liberal government is out of touch with the reality of people,” NDP Deputy Leader Alexandre Boulerice said. “So far, my questions to the Minister have gone unanswered. But this time, I hope that he will finally justify the stance taken by the Liberals.”
“Medical cannabis must be treated just like other prescription drugs. Its price must be reviewed and untaxed in order to allow patients to treat themselves properly,” Boulerice said. “Some patients are forced to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars each month to get their medication. This is wrong!”
Green Party: Elizabeth May
May voted for the cannabis legalization bill, and the Green Party platform backs decriminalizing all drugs, pledging to “address the opioid crisis as a health-care issue, not a criminal issue, by declaring a national health emergency.”
“Drug possession should be decriminalized, ensuring people have access to a screened supply and the medical support they need to combat their addictions,” it says.
The platform includes several provisions aimed at reforming the current legal marijuana regime.
“A year into the legalization of cannabis, the flaws in the regulatory framework for cannabis production and sale are evident and a reform agenda is emerging,” the party said, adding that the government’s regulatory approach “treats the production of cannabis as uniquely dangerous” and that’s contributed to the ongoing presence of an illicit market.
To combat the issue, Green Party said it would lower the federally set price of marijuana to be more competitive with illicit sellers, eliminate “excess plastic packaging” requirements, remove excise duties and sales tax on medical cannabis products, allow outdoor cultivation, impose organic production standards and allow CBD to be marketed as a natural health supplement.
“Security requirements mean growers must use more energy and water and deal with diseases and pests that thrive in greenhouses, increasing costs and hobbling their ability to meet production expectations,” the platform says.
Other policies the party supports include expanding funding of community-based organizations that test drugs for safety and increase the availability of the overdose reversal medication naloxone.
“We must stop treating drug addiction as a criminal issue and start treating is as a health-care issue,” May said in a press release last month announcing her party’s support for decriminalization. “This is a national health emergency.”
“The opioid crisis is a national tragedy that is devastating communities and families across Canada,” she said. “We have to abandon old notions of the ‘war on drugs’ and join the battle that really matters—the fight to save Canadian lives.”
“It’s hard to stand up as a national party leader and say it’s time to decriminalize all illicit drugs,” May said during a press conference. “It’s what we have to do.”
“We have to take emergency steps in an emergency situation, and it’s far too dangerous to allow people, whether they’re living on the streets or living at home with their parents…to have illicit drugs that are not thoroughly screened for fentanyl contamination,” she said.
Bloc Québécois: Yves-François Blanchet
Members of the Bloc Québécois, which is primarily focused on advocating for Quebec sovereignty, voted against the marijuana legalization bill.
The party’s leader, Blanchet, doesn’t appear to have extensively discussed cannabis or drug policy issues.
Former Bloc Québécois Party Leader Martine Ouellet was more outspoken about the need for reform and said in 2017 that the country should nationalize a legal cannabis market.
“With the legalization…it creates a brand new market and [it] is a market that is currently occupied by criminal organizations,” she said. “The choice we have, do we want it to go from criminal organizations to private firms, big corporations, or if we want these profits to go from criminal organizations to all citizens?”
Ensuring that individuals provinces have the jurisdiction to allow or ban home cultivation for personal use was reportedly a key policy the party supported.
People’s Party of Canada (PPC): Maxime Bernier
Bernier, voted against the cannabis legalization bill as a Conservative lawmaker but said that he would not reverse it if elected. However, he pledged to remain watchful of the industry.
“In the longer term, my main worry is to make sure that we see the illegal market significantly reduced and ideally disappear,” he said through a spokesperson. “That was one of the key justifications for cannabis legalization.”
“If [the illicit market] stays large, we would look at regulatory and tax changes to ensure the legal market is better served,” he said. “We do not have any specific proposal for now. Same thing for edibles.”
According to Burnaby Now, Bernier has said that he’s in favor of marijuana legalization in principle and that the country should review the impact of safe consumption sites.
When running as for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2016, Bernier welcomed an endorsement from Marc Emery, the so-called “Prince of Pot” who has since faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Emery said at the time, “I don’t even know what his position on marijuana is and I don’t care because for me Maxime Bernier represents a long-term future on all the issues” during a radio interview.
— Maxime Bernier (@MaximeBernier) September 14, 2016
Days before Bernier formally launched the PPC last year, Emery told The Toronto Star that he “totally” endorses the candidate’s policies.
“I’ve never seen anything I disagree with,” Emery said.
Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, a PPC candidate, said earlier this year that the party does not have an official stance on cannabis policy but expressed personal opposition to legalization.
What To Expect
Analysts expect voter turnout to be down for the Liberals, as enthusiasm for Trudeau continues to suffer amid controversy over revelations that he wore blackface and brownface. That’s presented an opportunity that some of the lesser parties such as the Greens intend to take advantage of, with May urging voters to elect enough of her party members to the House of Commons to prevent the Liberals from winning an outright majority.
That situation would mean that “the Greens and other smaller parties would hold the balance of power, possibly even including the Bloc Québécois,” The New York Times reported.
But regardless of the outcome, what appears certain is that Canada’s legal marijuana law will survive no matter which party holds power, though the specifics of how the program will continue to roll out could depend on the electoral results.
A bigger question is whether the country will build on the momentum of cannabis legalization and pursue broader drug policy reforms such as decriminalization or if that movement will stall under unsupportive leadership.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Policarpio.