Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced on February 9, 2019 that she’s running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
While Warren is widely known as an advocate for consumer protections and Wall Street regulation, she’s also developed a reputation as a champion for modernizing marijuana laws. As such, she has an A grade from NORML.
That wasn’t always the case, as the senator was previously somewhat dismissive of cannabis reform attitudes, and declined to endorse her home state of Massachusetts’s legalization ballot measure ahead of Election Day 2016—but her position quickly evolved as public opinion on the issue shifted demonstrably in favor of reform, particularly among Democratic primary voters.
This piece was last updated on August 8, 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
Warren is the lead sponsor of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which she filed in partnership with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) in April 2019 as well as an earlier version in June 2018. The legislation would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from federal interference and is also aimed at addresses banking access issues for the cannabis industry.
The senator has co-sponsored several other major pieces of cannabis reform legislation. That includes two wide-ranging bills from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ): the CARERS Act, which was designed to protect medical marijuana patients from federal enforcement efforts and stimulate research into the plant, and the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove marijuana from the CSA and direct federal courts to expunge the criminal records of those previously convicted of a cannabis-related offense. The latter bill also goes beyond the regular “states’ rights” mantra long expressed by reformers on Capitol Hill by actually withholding funding from states that maintain discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws.
A more recent bill from House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) that would deschedule cannabis and reinvest in communities disproportionately impacted by prohibition also received her cosponsorship.
During the 115th Congress, she cosponsored legislation to encourage the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans. This year, Warren signed onto stronger legislation that would require VA to study medical cannabis.
Warren has not had the opportunity to vote on any marijuana bills or amendments during her time in the Senate.
In March 2017, Warren signed a letter expressing concern about remarks from then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who hinted at a federal crackdown on legal cannabis states. The letter encouraged the Justice Department to allow states to operate legal cannabis systems without fear of federal intervention.
In November 2017, the senator wrote a letter to Trump’s then-nominee to head up the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar. In the letter, she said the administration should consider legalizing cannabis as a means to combat the opioid epidemic, citing research indicating the legal states experience lower rates of opioid overdoses compared to non-legal states.
And in January 2018, she sent a letter with a bipartisan coalition co-signers imploring Trump to direct former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reinstate the Cole memo, an Obama-era document providing guidance on federal marijuana enforcement. Doing so would “create a pathway to more comprehensive marijuana policy that respects state interests and prerogatives,” the lawmakers wrote.
On The Campaign Trail
At a campaign stop in Iowa in March, Warren said that “it’s just time to legalize [marijuana] nationally.”
FULL AUDIO: Senator Elizabeth Warren gives her response to my question to her on marijuana in a press gaggle in Waterloo, IA on March 2, 2019 pic.twitter.com/4l1hKJg4aZ
— Kyle Mazza (@KyleMazzaWUNF) March 2, 2019
After President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in prison for bank and tax fraud, Warren compared it to a case of a homeless man receiving a life sentence over $20 worth of cannabis.
Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, commits bank and tax fraud and gets 47 months. A homeless man, Fate Winslow, helped sell $20 of pot and got life in prison. The words above the Supreme Court say "Equal Justice Under Law"—when will we start acting like it?
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) March 8, 2019
“The words above the Supreme Court say ‘Equal Justice Under Law’—when will we start acting like it?” she wrote.
Warren touted endorsements for her STATES Act from the governors of Massachusetts, California and other states, writing that her legislation is “long overdue.”
Our federal marijuana laws perpetuate our broken criminal justice system, impede research, restrict veterans' access & hinder economic development. Marijuana should be legalized, & I’ll work with anyone – GOP, Dem, Independent, Libertarian, vegetarian – to push for these reforms.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) June 6, 2019
“Our federal marijuana laws perpetuate our broken criminal justice system, impede research, restrict veterans’ access & hinder economic development,” Warren said. “Marijuana should be legalized, & I’ll work with anyone – GOP, Dem, Independent, Libertarian, vegetarian – to push for these reforms.”
Warren discussed racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement at a CNN town hall event in April and took a question from a voter who challenged her on the fact that she hasn’t always supported cannabis reform.
Right now in this country, Black Americans are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than white Americans. That’s not right. We need to legalize marijuana—and I have a bipartisan bill would end the federal ban on marijuana. #WarrenTownHall
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) April 23, 2019
“I supported Massachusetts changing its laws on marijuana,” she said, setting aside the fact that she did not actually endorse several cannabis measures her state’s voters approved over the years. “Massachusetts had decriminalized at that point and I thought it made a lot more sense for Massachusetts to go ahead and legalize marijuana, and I now support the legalization of marijuana.”
In May, the senator contributed an essay for a publication on criminal justice issues that touches on broader reforms she wants to enact.
“We should legalize marijuana and wipe clean the records of those who have been unjustly jailed for minor marijuana crimes; end private prisons and the proﬁt incentives that pervert the goal of our justice system; provide more help for people struggling with domestic abuse, substance use disorders, and mental illness; and end the practice of branding the formerly incarcerated with a scarlet letter that closes doors to education, employment, and opportunity,” she wrote.
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
The federal government needs to get out of the business of outlawing marijuana. States should make their own decisions about enforcing marijuana laws.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) April 20, 2018
“Outdated federal marijuana laws have perpetuated our broken criminal justice system, created barriers to research, and hindered economic development,” Warren said in a press release when filing the STATES Act. “States like Massachusetts have put a lot of work into implementing common sense marijuana regulations – and they have the right to enforce their own marijuana policies. The federal government needs to get out of the business of outlawing marijuana.”
No one should go to jail for a joint. But more Americans are arrested for marijuana possession than all violent crimes combined. And black Americans are nearly 4x more likely to be arrested for it than whites. My new bill will help put an end to this two-tiered justice system.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) June 7, 2018
“Forcing legitimate marijuana businesses to operate a cash-only business is dangerous,” she said in a press release about cannabis banking legislation. “It creates unnecessary public safety issues for communities and business owners. The SAFE Banking Act is a common sense bill that would advance state efforts to regulate the sale of marijuana and support businesses working to establish reliable business operations.”
“Another option to tackle the opioid crisis is to invest in more research on alternative pain therapies, including physical therapy and new drugs that don’t have abuse potential,” Warren said during a 2016 hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “Medical marijuana might also be a viable alternative, but the truth is we just don’t know,” she said, noting the barriers to research that exist due to federal prohibition.
Medical marijuana might be a viable alternative to opioids for pain treatment, but truthfully, there's a lot we just don't know.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 25, 2016
I'll keep pushing our federal agencies to reschedule marijuana as part of crafting a rational research & public health strategy.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) August 11, 2016
When @realdonaldtrump ran for president he said marijuana policies should be left up to states. He should stick to his word and let states implement their own regulations – upending them only creates confusion, and puts our public health & safety at risk. https://t.co/pFNvbWzdr2
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) January 25, 2018
Yesterday, marijuana became available for legal purchase in Massachusetts. There’s been so much progress at the state level. Now it’s time to end the federal ban on marijuana. I have a bipartisan plan to do that: https://t.co/fckXEKrTNp
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) November 21, 2018
“The best studies suggest that African Americans and whites use marijuana at the same rates, but African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested for [it] than whites,” she said during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire. How about we legalize marijuana and get rid of all those cases?”
In another campaign stop Warren said she “voted in favor of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts” and that she believes “we should legalize it nationally.”
Warren’s 2018 Senate reelection website included a marijuana petition as a list-building tactic.
“Our current marijuana policies are unjust and they don’t make sense. That’s why I’m fighting for reform,” it says. “Add your name to join the fight.”
Her current presidential campaign website highlights her work on marijuana in a few places.
One page meant to push back against the idea that she is “too partisan to get things done” touts her “bipartisan bill to end the federal ban on marijuana – allowing states, territories, and tribes to set their own policies on legalization, decriminalization, and medical marijuana.”
“There’s a lot more to do to reform our marijuana laws, but letting states make their own choices would be a powerfully important start – and it’s something Democrats and Republicans agree on,” the site says.
Another page addressing issues related to her heritage and criticisms of how she has framed it cites Warren’s legislation as a way to “ensure that our country’s cannabis policies don’t leave Indian Country behind.”
“For many Native tribes, cannabis represents an important opportunity for economic development, and for some it has cultural or medicinal importance,” the site says. “Elizabeth introduced the STATES Act with Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner to safeguard the ability of states, territories, and tribes to decide how to enforce their own marijuana policies. The STATES Act – and especially its important tribal provisions – has received strong support from Indian Country.”
Another page says that “it’s not equal justice when a kid with an ounce of pot can get thrown in jail while a bank executive who launders money for a drug cartel can get a bonus.”
“We need criminal justice reform and we need it now,” the site says. “That means ending racial disparities in our justice system. It means banning private prisons. It means embracing community policing and demilitarizing our local police forces. It means comprehensive sentencing reform and rewriting our laws to decriminalize marijuana.”
The senator hasn’t always been receptive to broad reform:
In 2003, Warren suggested that the profits in tax revenue from legal marijuana could be outweighed by the consequences, writing in a book that “drug addiction, health problems, traffic accidents, and so forth” represent the “downside of marijuana.”
The candidate tried to use the pro-legalization stance of former Massachusetts Rep. Dan Winslow (R) against him as he sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2013. She said, “I advise everyone to pay very close attention to Dan Winslow’s platform. He has a 100 percent ranking from the gun lobby and he’s for the legalization of marijuana. He wants us armed and stoned.”
She also angered some cannabis reform advocates by staying on the sidelines of Massachusetts’s 2016 legalization ballot campaign, coming only so close as to say she “would be open to the possibility of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts” prior to Election Day.
But that didn’t stop her from later falsely stating that she actually endorsed the measure.
“Yes, I did,” she said earlier this year. “Oh, I did.”
While the senator later clarified that she voted in favor of the measure in the privacy of the voting booth, that explanation fell far short of what Bay State advocates were hoping to see from their progressive senator.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Warren said in a 2018 interview that she has never smoked marijuana.
Marijuana Under A Warren Presidency
Warren’s evolution on cannabis issues over the past two years has transformed her into one of Congress’s leading advocates for ending federal prohibition, a stance she would be expected to take with her into the Oval Office if she’s elected.
Bernie Sanders Talks Marijuana With Killer Mike, Danny Glover And Ben & Jerry’s Founder
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) led a panel during a presidential campaign stop in North Carolina on Friday where he and surrogates—rapper Killer Mike, actor Danny Glover and Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen—discussed marijuana reform.
At one point, Cohen said that he was arrested after being caught smoking cannabis while he was in school but the police only charged him for littering—a discretionary decision that he said he likely wouldn’t have been afforded if he was black. He speculated that without that privilege, the incident could have cost him loans that allowed him to build his ice cream empire.
Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, opened the conversation by asking Killer Mike to weigh in on the impact of the drug war, particularly on communities of color.
The artist said the “war on drugs, we now know from history, has been a tremendous failure” and that it “was never a war on drugs, it was a war on progressive white kids and black people.”
He discussed the racist origins of prohibition, the role cannabis criminalization has played in mass incarceration and emphasized the need to include restorative justice in a legal marijuana system.
“But we have a greater opportunity, and the greater opportunity is this: marijuana is going to be legal in our lifetime,” he said. “Beyond getting a little stoned in the morning, which I didn’t do this morning because I knew I had to come see you guys, marijuana provides through hemp paper, alternative to plastics, it provides jobs, resources, dispensaries.”
Watch the conversation about cannabis, starting at about 11:20 into the video below:
“We have an opportunity this time to take the people that are exiting jail, have expunged records and creating a pathway as wide as this aisle directly to legal marijuana and creating economic sustainability in the same communities that were robbed of that opportunity,” he said.
“As for me and my stoner friends, we’ll be buying Ben & Jerry’s and voting for Bernard Sanders.”
Glover joked that Mike’s plan is the “real green new deal that we need right here,” riffing off the name of climate change agenda backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
“What we’re talking about now is repairing the wrongs that were done on our communities, and we have a senator who’s going to be the president, who’s saying that we’re not only going to repair the wrongs of the war on drugs but we are going to bring back an era that we are organizing in our communities,” the actor said.
Cohen highlighted racial inequities in marijuana enforcement and broader societal structures, starting by noting that his parents were only able to enter the middle class with the help of a government program providing low-interest mortgages that black people were not entitled to. That program allowed him to go to a good school, he said, where he got busted for cannabis at one point.
“In the midst of getting my higher education, one summer I was smoking some pot with some friends on a beach and the cops caught us,” he said. “We were handcuffed and they took us to the station and they ended up giving us a ticket for littering a lighted cigarette butt on the ground.”
“But I am well aware that if I was black, I would’ve ended up with a criminal record that would have prevented me from getting the loans that we needed to start Ben & Jerry’s,” he said. “It’s really clear to me that if I was black, there wouldn’t have been a Ben & Jerry’s. I’m conscious of that, I think about that, and that’s one of the big reasons I’m supporting Bernie because he’s going to put an end to that system.”
The criminalization of marijuana has been a disaster for communities of color.
We will legalize marijuana, expunge past convictions and invest revenue from legal marijuana back into those communities. pic.twitter.com/x7xrzw1Eu4
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 21, 2019
Sanders closed the panel discussion by asking audience members to raise their hands if they knew someone arrested for marijuana, or were themselves arrested. He did a similar exercise at a campaign rally in South Carolina earlier this week.
After hands shot up, the senator said “this is what the war on drugs has done in this country.”
“It has criminalized so many people in this room. This is amazing,” he said. “The war on drugs has been incredibly destructive for millions and millions of people in this country and we’re going to end that war on drugs and we’re going to make marijuana legal.”
Photo courtesy of Facebook/Bernie Sanders.
Former Federal Prosecutor’s Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances In South Dakota
A measure to legalize marijuana in South Dakota—introduced by a former federal prosecutor and backed by a leading national cannabis advocacy group—was recently cleared for signature gathering.
Brendan Johnson, who served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota and whose father represented the state in the U.S. Senate until 2015, filed the initiative in June. It received an official explanatory statement from the attorney general last month and its backers were given the green light to start collecting signatures last week.
“We are excited to move forward with these ballot initiative campaigns,” Johnson told Marijuana Moment. “South Dakota voters are ready to approve both medical marijuana and legalization at the ballot box next year.”
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is supporting the proposed constitutional amendment, as well as a separate statutory initiative to legalize medical cannabis in the state that was approved for signature collection last month.
The former federal prosecutor’s measure, which is being steered by the committee South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers.
Sales would be taxed at 15 percent under the initiative, and revenue would be used to fund the program’s implementation, with additional monies going toward public education and the state general fund.
Beside legalizing marijuana, the amendment would also instruct the legislature to enact legislation to legalize hemp and medical cannabis. If the separate statutory medical marijuana legalization initiative, being coordinated by the group New Approach South Dakota, qualifies and passes as well, that latter requirement wouldn’t be necessary.
“The Marijuana Policy Project strongly supports the South Dakota campaign,” MPP Deputy Director Matthew Schweich, who led the organization’s efforts in support of previous legalization campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan, told Marijuana Moment. “Across the country, and even in conservative states, voters are demanding marijuana policy reform. Our goal is simple: to effectuate the will of the people when elected officials choose to ignore it.”
Petitioners for the proposed constitutional amendment must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters to qualify for the 2020 ballot. For statutory initiatives, 16,961 signatures are required. MPP’s involvement will likely bolster the campaign’s prospects of meeting that goal.
It’s already clear that marijuana reform measures are going to face resistance from certain quarters, with Gov. Kristi Noem (R) vetoing a hemp legalization bill in March and the state’s Republican party urging residents not to sign ballot petitions.
“Our campaign, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, will be working from now until Election Day 2020 to earn the support of South Dakotans from every corner of the state,” Johnson said.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Cory Booker Pledges To Back Only Marijuana Bills With Justice Focus As Banking Vote Approaches
With a vote on marijuana banking issues imminent in the House, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) emphasized on Friday that he will not support cannabis legislation that doesn’t include restorative justice components.
In a tweet that linked to an earlier Marijuana Moment article on his cannabis stance, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote that “any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.”
As I said earlier this year, any marijuana legislation moving through Congress must include restorative justice for those most harmed by the War on Drugs in order to get my vote.https://t.co/Y1dOwgHbm2
— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) September 20, 2019
The statement comes at a critical moment in the marijuana reform movement. House leadership announced on Friday that the first full floor vote on a standalone piece of cannabis reform legislation—a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators—will be held next week. But that development has also created controversy, with several advocacy groups arguing that a vote should be postponed until more wide-ranging reform legislation is passed.
Although Booker didn’t directly reference the banking bill his his tweet, its timing seemed to suggest that he sides with those groups—which include the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance—and that he wouldn’t support the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act as written.
Booker’s Senate press secretary confirmed to Marijuana Moment in an email that his boss’s Twitter post was sent directly in reaction to the House banking news.
While some have made the case that the bill would help promote social equity by improving access to banking services for minority business owners, for example, others view the legislation as primarily benefiting large cannabis firms.
Throughout his campaign, the senator has emphasized the need for inclusive and comprehensive marijuana reform. He determined that a bill to protect state cannabis programs from federal intervention that he formerly cosponsored didn’t meet that standard and did not attach his name to the latest version.
“At this point it’s too obvious and urgent and unfair that we’re moving something on marijuana on the federal level and it doesn’t do something on restorative justice,” he told VICE in April. “I want that bill to have some acknowledgement of the savage injustices that the marijuana prohibition has done to communities.”
“I get very angry when people talk about legalizing marijuana and then give no light to how marijuana law enforcement was done in ways that fed upon poor communities—black and brown communities. This is a war on drugs that has not been a war on drugs—it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately poor people and disproportionately black and brown people.”
Booker also said that he wants to couple conversations about legalization with talk of expunging prior cannabis convictions “in the same breath.”
The senator’s potential future opposition to a House-passed cannabis banking bill could prove problematic as its supporters work to shepherd the legislation through a chamber where it already faces an uphill path under anti-marijuana Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and skepticism from other GOP lawmakers.
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.