If attendees at the Iowa State Fair were looking for a candidate to end the federal government’s failed war on drugs, they would have few choices judging from the speeches at the Des Moines Register’s Political Soap Box.
Every four years, candidates for president flock to this quadrennial staple of the Iowa Caucuses for their 20 minutes before fairgoers for what is essentially presidential speed dating. One after the other over a few days, would-be nominees climb the stage and offer up their best opening statement to the Democratic base followed by questions during the balance of their 20 minutes before getting the hook. Everyone follows the same rules and faces a politically savvy crowd. Unlike debates, the Soap Box may be the only opportunity for voters to hear the candidates in succession — live, unfiltered, and without interruption — talk about what they feel are the most pressing issues facing the country.
As expected, voters heard about each candidate’s position on health care, climate change, gun control, abortion, and education/student debt, which were largely just echoes of the previous candidate’s position on those same issues. Stunningly, for drug policy reform advocates, a large majority of candidates failed to mention the harms associated with the drug war.
How is it members of Congress talk about the ‘opioid crisis’ on Capitol Hill, yet they fail to bring it up in Iowa? How is it that every candidate who is a member of Congress is either a sponsor or original cosponsor of a bill to end the federal prohibition of cannabis, yet all but one failed to mention it?
That one was Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Gabbard has been a vocal champion and bill sponsor of marijuana policy reform and used her opening statement to talk about her efforts in Congress. Gabbard received the only ‘A’ from the Marijuana Policy Project among congressional incumbents for her opening statement and distinguished herself from the field. If fairgoers were looking for someone who will make ending reefer madness a priority, Gabbard likely won their vote.
Only two other top-tier candidates used their opening statements to talk about the drug war: former HUD Secretary Juan Castro and former Washington Governor Jay Inslee. Both devoted considerable time to the issue of ending the federal prohibition on marijuana specifically and received top marks along with Gabbard.
A surprising bright spot was former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who failed to mention his home state’s first-in-the-nation cannabis legalization law (led by MPP) during his opening remarks, but who received an ‘A’ on the Q&A portion for turning a minimum wage question into a full-throated endorsement of Colorado’s adult-use status, a law he originally opposed.
Pete Buttigieg received a ‘B’ for his brief mention of marijuana legalization during his response to a question on criminal justice reform, but like other candidates got a failing grade for his opening statement.
MPP continues to be disappointed that this life and death issue fails to be a question asked in the debates. And as much as we would like candidates to raise the issue during their opening or closing statements, that’s difficult to do in a minute. But as Hickenlooper proved, you don’t need a drug policy question to give a drug policy answer. Given 20 minutes of unfiltered, uninterrupted time before Democratic voters, it is hard to understand how issues like the opioid crisis, which claims a hundred lives each day, and the war on marijuana, which still results in over a half million arrests every year, fail to get a mention.
The field is getting narrowed down, and our most vocal supporters are dropping out of the race or are unlikely to qualify for future debates.
There will be other debates, but nothing like the Soap Box. (Sadly, the September debate failed to feature any substantive marijuana policy questions.) For the remaining candidates, there will be plenty of room on the stage, and as far as this drug policy reformer is concerned, there is plenty of room for improvement.
Don Murphy, Director of Federal Policies, Marijuana Policy Project, Washington, D.C.
Artful Dodgers: How the Candidates and Moderators Failed to Address Cannabis Policy at Another Debate
After a dozen hours of Democratic presidential candidate debates, there has been virtually no discussion about cannabis policy reform, leaving advocates sincerely disappointed. At a time when several pieces of cannabis legislation are pending in Congress, the absence of any cannabis-focused discussion is even more frustrating. Any list of issues important to Democratic primary voters would have to include not only the broad topic of criminal justice reform, but also the more narrow issue of cannabis policy.
Debate moderators have the opportunity and the responsibility to question the candidates on the issues facing the United States and its people. Federal cannabis prohibition happens to be one of these issues — yet there has not been one direct question focused on this. A recent poll found that legalizing cannabis is more popular than free college tuition, a $15 minimum wage, gun control, or a universal basic income. But you wouldn’t know it based on the questions posed to candidates during the debates.
Is it out of ignorance that debate moderators fail to ask about cannabis policy reform, or is it something worse? Do they think the topic is just not serious enough to ask about? Regardless, the drug war is an issue many viewers care about, evidenced by the fact that on the rare occasion when the topic is broached, it almost always comes from one of the network’s social media partners. Yet, there’s apparently time to question Cory Booker about his vegan diet. Is veganism resulting in more than half a million arrests per year? Are there currently bills in Congress to end a failed policy on vegan prohibition? How about a policy question that’s at the forefront of people’s minds — one related to the fact that hundreds of thousands of individuals are still being criminalized for using a substance that is safer than alcohol?
Not only have the moderators let us down by leaving cannabis out of the discussion, the candidates have too. Rarely has a candidate taken the opportunity to inject the issue of cannabis reform into a tangential topic such as criminal justice reform or racism. While the candidates may sound good discussing what they will do if elected president, many are having problems squaring the future with their past. During the last debate, the two biggest dodgers were Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
Harris was questioned about her current support for legalization despite having prosecuted cannabis offenses during her time as California attorney general. She refused to directly answer the question, and the moderators, in turn, failed to dig deeper.
The most pressing question the Marijuana Policy Project wants an answer to and wants the public to hear is, “what role are you playing in the marijuana policy reform debate in your state and/or at the federal level, and how has your position evolved over time?” Harris had the opportunity to respond to just that but gave us nothing. Harris’ lack of response is unsatisfying, but it’s not too surprising considering Harris has also refused to answer questions regarding her vote on California’s Prop 64, the successful legalization initiative coordinated by a coalition of groups, including MPP.
Similar to MPP’s question for the candidates, a question from the Drug Policy Alliance focuses specifically on one candidate, asking, “what would you do differently as Biden in the 90s?” While Vice President Biden is the only candidate who mentioned the word “marijuana” during the most recent debate, his position showed that he is still not aligned with the majority of Americans who support legalization. Instead, he suggested that cannabis offenses should be classified as misdemeanors, many of which carry hefty fines and jail time. This was a perfect opportunity for the other candidates to step up and voice their support and reasoning for legalizing cannabis, but all we heard was silence. While many others on the stage have called for both ending federal prohibition and broader criminal justice reform, they failed to vocalize it, thereby missing a big opportunity.
There is no excuse for the lack of cannabis-focused discussion on the debate stage during the 2020 presidential race. It’s a bipartisan issue with nearly 70% support from the American public. It’s an issue that the president and Congress have the power to solve. It’s an issue that a majority of Americans want resolved. And most crucially, it’s an issue that is still causing harm to many of our citizens. We expect more questions, and the American people deserve more answers.
Don Murphy, Marijuana Policy Project, Director of Federal Policies
Late yesterday, the Rhode Island Senate adopted the House's budget bill, sending the legislation to Gov. Raimondo for her approval. Although the governor's January budget proposal included a plan to legalize marijuana for adults, the state legislature removed it and instead increased the number of licenses for medical marijuana compassion centers from three to nine. The budget also raises the annual licensing fees for these businesses to $500,000 — by far the highest in the nation.
Though the outcome is not what we hoped for, we were successful in avoiding an even worse result. After MPP and our allies called legislators' attention to it, the House amended out a budget provision that would have allowed the Department of Business Regulation to establish "criteria for eligibility or a demonstration of need" for patients and caregivers who wish to grow medical marijuana. Given the department's stated opposition to home cultivation, many patients could have lost their ability to produce their own medicine had this provision not been removed.
Looking ahead, advocates for sensible marijuana policy reform in Rhode Island are regrouping and planning for next year. With the legislative session winding down and no elections coming up, the next six months are an excellent time to contact your state senator and representative and talk with them about the need for sensible cannabis policy reform.
Though it is disappointing when progress does not come quickly, our movement is winning, and our numbers are growing. We must continue speaking out and advocating for reform. I appreciate you for sticking with us and continuing this fight.
Stay tuned for more updates soon.
West Virginia's 2019 legislative session began yesterday, and several bills are expected to be introduced in the coming days to reform marijuana laws, including a bill to improve the medical cannabis law, a decriminalization bill, and an adult-use legalization bill.
Legislative leaders have already begun discussing possible reforms, including ways of addressing the banking issue that has prevented rollout of the medical cannabis program, but we must help convince legislators that there is an urgent need to take action.
After you write your legislators, please forward this message to your family and friends!