Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced on February 9, 2019 that she was running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and she suspended her campaign on March 5, 2020.
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 March 6, 2020 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.
In 2019, Warren signed onto stronger legislation that would require VA to study medical cannabis.
She also teamed up with Gardner in December 2019 to introduce bills aimed at protecting military veterans and immigrants from being punished for working at state-legal cannabis businesses.
“Veterans have sacrificed so much for us,” she said of the legislation. “But our outdated federal marijuana laws prevent vets who work in their state’s legal cannabis industry from getting a VA-backed home loan to realize the dream of homeownership. I have a bipartisan bill for that.”
Veterans have sacrificed so much for us. But our outdated federal marijuana laws prevent vets who work in their state’s legal cannabis industry from getting a VA-backed home loan to realize the dream of homeownership. I have a bipartisan bill for that. https://t.co/2NJt0PIMvS
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) December 19, 2019
Warren has not had the opportunity to vote on any marijuana bills or amendments during her time in the Senate.
The senator led a letter directed to the DEA in December 2019, demanding an update on the agency’s efforts to increase the number of federally authorized cannabis manufacturers for research purposes. The letter also inquired about the prospects of rescheduling the plant.
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
In February, 2020, Warren released a detailed marijuana-focused plan that includes promises to begin the federal cannabis legalization within 100 days of taking office, involve communities harmed by the drug war in the marijuana industry, respect other nations’s drug laws and allow Washington, D.C. to enact legal sales.
Warren’s earlier criminal justice reform plan, which was released in August 2019, calls for the legalization of cannabis and safe injection facilities where people can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment.
She has pledged to deschedule cannabis through executive action if elected.
The candidate released a plan for veterans in November 2019 that emphasizes her support for “legislation to study the use of medical cannabis to treat veterans as an alternative to opioids, because we need to pursue all evidence-based opportunities for treatment and response.”
She also issued a plan for Native Americans that calls for tribal marijuana programs to be protected against federal intervention, and later cited her cannabis reform work in a lengthy letter responding to ongoing criticism from tribal members about how she has characterized her own heritage.
During a Democratic debate in February, she said that rival candidate Pete Buttigieg did not adequately explain racial disparities in marijuana arrests that took place during his time as mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“You have to own up to the facts. And it’s important to own up to the facts about how race has totally permeated our criminal justice system,” she said. “We need to rework our criminal justice system from the front end on what we make illegal all the way through the system and how we help people come back into the community.”
At a campaign stop in Iowa in March, 2019, 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 criticized a budget proposal from Trump that would revoke current protections for state medical cannabis laws.
The President’s new budget would end @TheJusticeDept’s policy not to interfere in states’ marijuana laws. Just more proof that federal marijuana policies are broken & outdated. I support legalization – & @SenCoryGardner & I have a bipartisan bill to end the federal marijuana ban. pic.twitter.com/5EP9zAtsHt
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 15, 2020
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.”
“Let’s be clear: Our government criminalizes too many things and sends too many people to jail,” she said in November, including marijuana legalization in a list of policies she’ll push for.
Let’s be clear: Our government criminalizes too many things and sends too many people to jail. In a Warren administration, we will:
☑️ Repeal the 1994 Crime Bill
☑️ Legalize marijuana
☑️ Undo the legacy of the War on Drugs
☑️ End cash bail and private prisons
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) November 24, 2019
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 December 2019, a top aide on Warren’s campaign told Marijuana Moment that a claim being circulated that her team rejected a job applicant over a cannabis offense was false.
Ahead of a National Cannabis Industry Association conference in Boston in January 2020, Warren sent a letter welcoming the group to her home state.
The full letter.
"Our federal cannabis laws are outdated, and it is time to reverse the history of failed cannabis policies that have harmed communities and threatened our nation's public health and safety." – @SenWarren pic.twitter.com/GsjxWGhoXo
— National Cannabis Industry Association (@NCIAorg) January 17, 2020
The senator told America Quarterly that Latin American countries legalizing marijuana or other drugs would not undermine U.S. interests
“The ‘War on Drugs’ has criminalized addiction, destabilized the region, and failed to significantly curb violent effects of the drug trade. It has not made us safer,” she said. “I support the legalization of marijuana. It’s time for a new approach that emphasizes evidence-based treatment while reducing and preventing criminal violence.”
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.”
In 2011, Warren voiced opposition to marijuana legalization for recreational purposes, stating that medical cannabis “is one thing,” but she’s not “generally” supportive of broader reform.
— Tommy X-TrumpIsARacist-opher (@tommyxtopher) December 27, 2019
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.
Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.