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
We have big news to share: Just now, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the SAFE Banking Act (H.R. 1595) in a 321-103 floor vote! Today’s vote was historic, as the SAFE Banking Act is the first standalone cannabis bill to ever receive a full vote in Congress.
This legislation would prevent federal financial regulators from punishing financial institutions that provide services to state-legal cannabis businesses. Currently, most banks are unwilling to work with the cannabis industry because they fear federal prosecution. A version of this legislation has been introduced in the Senate (S. 1200) and currently has 33 cosponsors.
As more states implement and expand cannabis-related programs, Congressional action is urgently needed to provide clear banking policies, which would reduce the illicit market, promote public health and safety, increase consumer safety standards, ensure broader patient access, help with business transparency and compliance, and reduce safety risks associated with running high-volume, cash-only businesses.
It is also important to recognize that the SAFE Banking Act, if passed by the Senate and signed into law by the President, would strengthen efforts to increase the diversity of the cannabis industry. Many states that have legalized cannabis for adults have launched efforts to ensure that there are economic opportunities for communities of color that have been most severely impacted by marijuana prohibition. Access to capital remains an obstacle to this goal, and the SAFE Banking Act would help to address this problem.
MPP is proud to support this legislation, and we’d like to thank all of our allies who worked so hard to get this bill to a House floor vote. We’d also like to thank you, our supporters, for reaching out to your representatives on behalf of the SAFE Banking Act.
Onward to the Senate!
The emerging cannabis industry — with $17 billion in sales this year — is currently troubled by a lack of racial diversity within its ranks. It is impossible to ignore the fact that members of the African American community and other racial minorities have paid a particularly high price in the war on cannabis. When the business community that follows legalization leaves behind people of color, there is cause for concern.
Recently, equity in the cannabis industry has moved to the forefront of many legalization discussions around the United States. It became the most significant issue in passage of Illinois’ recent legalization bill, and equity remains central in the discussions in New Jersey and New York. It can include many facets — from additional points on license applications for minority-owned businesses to incubator programs that help businesses get off the ground.
Yet, the single biggest advancement in equity in the near term will come from an unlikely and perhaps even unremarkable source — access to regulated financial services.
African Americans have access to far less wealth than their white counterparts. As a result, it has been difficult for black entrepreneurs to enter into the cannabis industry, which has relied on private equity to seed business opportunity. Opening banking services to the cannabis industry helps not only existing companies, but also minorities seeking access to that industry.
For example, many of the specific equity policies that states are putting in place require banking services to be meaningful. In Illinois, the state’s new landmark law to legalize and regulate cannabis establishes a fund to provide tens of millions of dollars in grants and loans to social equity applicants. Yet it remains to be seen if the financial institutions that serve the state will be willing to provide the banking services necessary to implement that portion of the law. The SAFE Banking Act would create a “safe harbor” for banks that provide small business loans, which could help level the playing field and increase opportunities for diverse representation within the cannabis industry.
Additionally, the SAFE Banking Act would establish important reporting requirements that do not exist today. It would mandate an annual report to Congress on access to financial services for minority- and women-owned cannabis businesses and recommendations to expand access for them. It would also require the Comptroller General to study barriers to marketplace entry for minority- and women-owned cannabis businesses and report to Congress on recommendations.
Members of Congress should allow banks to provide financial services to cannabis businesses. This creates access to resources for minority and women entrepreneurs and increases the chances for success in state equity initiatives. The SAFE Act is the best next step toward establishing a more equitable cannabis industry in the U.S.
Steven Hawkins, Executive Director, Marijuana Policy Project
The U.S. House of Representatives voted yesterday to prevent the federal government from interfering with state laws regulating marijuana for all purposes, including adult use.
"Today's vote is the most significant step Congress has ever taken toward ending federal marijuana prohibition."
- Steven Hawkins, MPP Executive Director
Yesterday in the U.S. House of Representatives, an extraordinary milestone was achieved when the body approved a measure by a 267-165 vote to prevent the Department of Justice from using funds to interfere with the implementation of state laws that have legalized marijuana for adults. Since 2014, Congress has renewed a provision that prevented federal interference in states' medical marijuana programs, but this goes further and includes adult-use legalization, too.
The significance of this development cannot be overstated. As MPP Executive Director Steve Hawkins put it this vote means "Congress is recognizing that the federal government must let the states decide on cannabis legalization — and not the other way around." But this win was only made possible with your support.
Please help MPP continue to achieve victories like this by making a contribution to the effort today.
The bipartisan amendment, offered by Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) to the House version of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, prohibits the Justice Department, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, from using funds to interfere in the implementation of state laws that allow the use, possession, cultivation, and distribution of marijuana. The measure is broader than previous amendments, which applied only to medical marijuana laws.
We should all take a moment to savor this seminal achievement and to appreciate how far we've come as a movement. But we can't afford to rest on our laurels, to count on momentum alone to drive future progress, or to assume others will step up to support ending marijuana prohibition nationwide.
Your gift of support today is critical to ensure that MPP has the resources it needs to keep on fighting and winning. Click here to donate now.
The Senate is expected to take up companion legislation in the coming weeks, and it's going to take all the efforts of MPP's policy experts, allies, and coalition partners to push this bill forward. Most importantly, strong and active support from people like you, who know firsthand the injustice and illogic of marijuana prohibition, will be key to moving this legislation across the finish line.
Thank you for all you've done to help us get this far. The MPP mission to end marijuana prohibition has never been so close to being realized, and with your support, we will make that vision a reality.
Later this week, we have a chance to make a major breakthrough in reforming marijuana policy at the federal level. We need your help to make it happen.
The House is expected to vote on the McClintock-Blumenauer amendment, which would prevent the Department of Justice from using funds to interfere with the implementation of state laws that have legalized marijuana for adults. Since 2014, Congress has upheld a rule preventing federal interference in states' medical marijuana programs, but this goes further and includes adult-use legalization, too.
With Illinois' recent victory, 11 states have ended marijuana prohibition, and more than 25% of the U.S. population lives in a jurisdiction where marijuana is legal for adults. We must protect these state laws and prevent federal arrests for people operating legal marijuana businesses.
Today, 33 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws allowing for either medical or adult-use cannabis. An additional 14 states allow for limited medical use. But under current law, financial institutions providing banking services to legitimate and licensed cannabis businesses under state laws are subject to criminal prosecution under several federal statutes, such as "aiding and abetting" a federal crime and money laundering.
In March, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) introduced the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act (HR 1595) to address this discord between state and federal policy. This bipartisan legislation recently hit 200 cosponsors in the House, and a House floor vote is expected soon.
Please email your U.S. Representative to urge them to support the SAFE Banking Act! If your rep is already a cosponsor, you can thank them for their leadership on the issue.
This legislation would prevent federal regulators from punishing financial institutions for providing services to cannabis-related businesses operating in compliance with state laws. While some cannabis businesses have been able to find banking services, most banks are unwilling to work with them because they fear federal prosecution. As a result, many cannabis businesses are forced to operate entirely in cash.
Solving the banking issue would promote public health and safety, as access to banking would ensure broader patient access, help with business transparency and compliance, and reduce safety risks associated with running high-volume, cash-only businesses. In addition, the legislation would make it easier for financial institutions to provide loans to cannabis-related businesses, allowing those with the least access to capital — often minorities — to participate in the new legal cannabis industry.
Please contact your U.S. Representative in support of this bill TODAY, then share this link with friends and family who support sensible cannabis policies so they can do the same.
Yesterday, Councilman David Grosso introduced a bill to tax and regulate marijuana for adults 21 and older in the District of Columbia! Provisions in the bill also include establishing an automatic expungement program for individuals with past marijuana convictions.
While Initiative 71 legalized the possession and cultivation of limited amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older, Congress has blocked the District from taxing and regulating sales. But, with change in congressional leadership, Councilman Grosso said the prospects of passing legalization legislation are stronger. Mayor Muriel Bowser has also been vocal about her plans to tax and regulate marijuana in the District.
With no lawful place to purchase non-medical cannabis, D.C. has seen a proliferation of "grey market" operators and a significant increase in arrests for the distribution of marijuana. Regulating and taxing the marijuana market will put the market in the hands of licensed businesses, leading to safer outcomes for consumers and the community, while bringing millions of dollars in tax revenue and hundreds of jobs to the District.
It's important your councilmembers hear from as many constituents as possible. Please contact them today! Then, forward this message to your family and friends in D.C.
Another election, and another historic night for marijuana reform.
Michigan has passed legalization! MPP played a central role in this campaign from start to finish. From coordinating the initiative drafting to overseeing the production of TV ads, MPP staffers worked alongside a excellent campaign team for two years to make Michigan the first state in the Midwest to adopt legalization. This is a huge win that will maintain our momentum in Washington, D.C. to pass a landmark federal reform bill through Congress in the near future.
Utah passed medical marijuana! MPP led the drafting process and played an important supporting role throughout the campaign. We are so proud of the Utah Patients Coalition team on this historic win that will end the heartless policy of criminalizing patients. If we can pass medical marijuana in Utah, then we can pass it in any state in the country…and we will.
In Missouri, voters approved medical marijuana, and they chose the best of the three possible initiatives. We congratulate our allies in the marijuana reform movement for this important win that will help patients access the medicine they need.
Sadly, North Dakota did not pass its legalization initiative. In such a conservative state, it was always an uphill battle. The proponents ran a strong campaign, but in a midterm year, the electorate was always going to be a challenge. North Dakota passed medical marijuana in 2016. It’s only a matter of time before the state adopts legalization, either via ballot initiative or legislative action.
As a movement, we won three out of four states. And for MPP, we’ve now played a leading role in seven of the 10 states that have legalized marijuana for adults (Colorado, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Vermont, and Michigan).
We couldn’t do this work without the support of voters, allies, activists, and donors. We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to everyone who made these crucial victories last night possible.
In other great news, voters elected at least seven governors who support ending marijuana prohibition — Ned Lamont in Connecticut, JB Pritzker in Illinois, Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, Tim Walz in Minnesota, Gavin Newsom in California, Jared Polis in Colorado, and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan. For more details, check out our elections page.
The state’s choice of governor will likely have a huge impact on state cannabis policy
Vote counting officially begins today, October 22, for the upcoming general election, which takes place on November 6. Many voters received ballots over the last several days by mail. The race for governor includes noted cannabis policy champion Congressman Jared Polis, whom MPP rates with an A+ grade.
Current Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is term-limited and must step down, and between the major party candidates, Jared Polis (D) has the clear advantage when it comes for support for good cannabis policy. He is the only candidate who supported the legalization initiative in 2012 and has been a strong advocate for improving federal law as Congressman for U.S. House District 2. Among other achievements in Congress, he started the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.
By contrast, current State Treasurer Walker Stapleton (R) offers only limited support at best for cannabis policy reform. He voiced support for stricter regulations for medical marijuana during a recent public forum and referred to Polis’ stance as a “radical extreme plan.” MPP gives him a C.
The positions of two other candidates, Bill Hammons of the Unity Party of Colorado and Scott Helker of the Libertarian party, are unclear. Neither candidate has a prior voting record on cannabis legislation, nor public statements on cannabis policy.
For more information on Colorado’s Election Day, be sure to visit the state’s elections website here. And most of all, be sure to vote this general election in Colorado!