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



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Tax and Regulate

N.H.: Study commission proposes legalization framework

After you vote tomorrow, you are welcome to attend a marijuana legalization debate at New England College in Henniker!

Last week, New Hampshire’s study commission on marijuana legalization published its final report. The commission did not take a position on legalization, but it did make 54 recommendations to the legislature, including the following:

  • Marijuana should be referred to as cannabis in any future legislation.
  • If cannabis is legalized for adults’ use, limited home cultivation should be allowed.
  • If cannabis is legalized, a Cannabis Commission should be created to license and regulate cannabis cultivators, testing labs, product manufacturers, and retail stores.

You can read the full report here. Overall, this is a much more useful report than we originally expected from the study commission, which was stacked with prohibitionists. Although it does contain some problematic language, the report will help to inform the legislature about the issue when it convenes in January.

We expect that your calendars are already marked for Election Day tomorrow. If you are available tomorrow evening after you vote, you’re welcome to join me and other panelists for a cannabis legalization debate at New England College.

WHAT: Debate: Should New Hampshire Legalize Cannabis?

WHERE: New England College, Simon Center Great Room, 98 Bridge Street, Henniker

WHEN: 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

WHO: Six panelists including Richard Van Wickler, Superintendent of Cheshire County Department of Corrections, Kate Frey, vice-president of advocacy at New Futures, and MPP’s New England Political Director Matt Simon

Finally, please click here to learn where candidates on your ballot stand on marijuana policy! Then, please share this information with your family and friends and remind them to vote on November 6!



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Huckabee, Clinton, Sanders Improving Positions on Marijuana

MPP has upgraded Mike Huckabee, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders in its report card-style voter guide to the 2016 major party presidential candidates. The voter guide can be viewed online at http://

More changes could follow the Republican candidate debate scheduled to take place Wednesday in Boulder, Colorado, where the candidates are likely to discuss the state’s laws that regulate marijuana for adult and medical use.

From The Hill:

[caption id="attachment_9295" align="alignright" width="201"]huckabee Mike Huckabee (Photo: Gage Skidmore)[/caption]

"This idea of recreational marijuana, let’s let Colorado have at it for a few years and let’s see how that works out for them,” Huckabee told a local Iowa television station earlier this month. "I’ve been to Amsterdam a few times; I don’t want us to look like Amsterdam. And a lot of people in Colorado aren’t liking the way that’s headed either.

“I’m willing to let states operate under the 10th Amendment,” the former Arkansas governor added. "I’m willing for the states — if they think that marijuana and the legalization of it is a great thing — I’m willing for them to experiment and find out. And if it works and it turns out that the presence of recreational marijuana makes them a more prosperous state … well heck, we may just all want to reach out there and grab that.”

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Marijuana Policy at the Democratic Presidential Debate

Last night, the first Democratic Party national presidential debates took place, and as expected, the issue of marijuana policy was addressed. Bernie Sanders stood out by becoming the first mainstream, major party presidential candidate to publicly support regulating marijuana.

CNN has the video:

After hearing these responses, MPP has updated our Presidential Report Card and upgraded Bernie Sanders to "A", elevating him above Rand Paul to the head of the class. Hillary Clinton was also upgraded to "B" for her support of medical marijuana.

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GOP Presidential Hopefuls Debate Marijuana Policy

Last week, Republican presidential candidates were asked about their positions on marijuana policy reform. While most of them responded that they would let states determine their own policies, they also stated their opposition to making marijuana legal for adults and revealed their serious misunderstandings of the relative harms of marijuana compared to alcohol and other drugs.

Here is the portion of the debate concerning marijuana policy:

Vice's coverage included some great comments from MPP's Dan Riffle:

Riffle added that he was disappointed that "scientifically incorrect" information mentioned during the debate was not challenged, particularly Christie's assertion that marijuana is a gateway drug.

"It's troubling to have presidential candidates to be so misinformed on marijuana," said Riffle. "The Institute of Medicine, the nation's foremost authority on science, medicine, and health, has said there's absolutely nothing about the physiological properties of marijuana that leads people to use other drugs."

Riffle noted that he agrees with former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina's comment during the debate that young people are being misled "when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer," but not for the reasons she implied.

"It's not like having a beer," he said. "It's safer. And there's an abundance of medical and scientific research that has shown this."

Click here to see MPP's guide to the 2016 presidential candidates.

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Rob Kampia: Public Reaction to Obama's YouTube Comment on Drug Legalization Shows Progress

From the Huffington Post:

In watching the evolving hubbub around President Obama's statement about drug legalization on Youtube on January 27, when he said, "I think this is an entirely legitimate topic for debate, [but] I am not in favor of legalization," I'm reminded of December 7, 1993.

Sitting at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., someone at my table asked U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders if she would support legalizing drugs as a way of curbing drug-related violence. Her now-famous answer was this: "I do feel we'd markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized. I don't know all the ramifications, but I do feel we need to do some studies. Some other countries that have legalized drugs, they certainly have shown that there has been a reduction in their crime rate, and there has been no increase in their drug rate."

New to the fake conservatism of D.C., I was surprised at the national outcry that resulted. For days, political commentators and newspaper editorial boards pulled their hair out, incredulous that President Clinton's top physician would say something so "irresponsible."

Compare that knee-jerk reaction with today's public response to a similar remark, except this time it's the actual president who made the remark. There's much less outcry today, and many people are actually criticizing Obama for not going farther and declaring that at least marijuana should be legal.

The differences between the two events and the surrounding discussions show how far politicians, the political chattering class, and the public have matured in just 17 years. Indeed, public support for making marijuana legal was only 25% back then, but now it's 46% -- a rise of 1.4% per year.

While I'm glad the president is favoring debate -- rather than shutting down debate, as his predecessors did -- the rest of his response was fairly disappointing. Here are my major criticisms of the president's approach to this debate ...

-- Public Health Problem: He also said, "I am a strong believer that we have to think more about drugs as a public health problem." By definition, removing something from the sphere of criminal justice requires legalizing or decriminalizing it. If Obama really believes this, then why continue to treat marijuana use as a crime? For example, eating gobs of cheeseburgers and eggs is widely considered a public-health problem, but no one is arguing that such consumers should be arrested. And it should be noted that cholesterol kills more people in America every year than have been killed by marijuana use in all of recorded history.

-- Obama, the Criminal: Obama is a former user of marijuana and cocaine, so to oppose the legalization -- or at least the decriminalization -- of drugs like these is hypocritical. If he's unwilling to push for substantial drug policy reform, there's only one way out of the hypocrisy, and that is to turn himself in for arrest. Having never experienced the negative effects that a criminal record can have on getting an education or finding a job, it seems like he is willfully overlooking that if he had been one of the 800,000 people who are arrested for marijuana every year, he would probably not be where he is.

-- Shrink Demand: Obama dedicates most of his answer to talking about how we need to shift taxpayer resources from reducing the supply of drugs to reducing the demand for drugs. The ideal approach is not to use taxpayer money for either, and instead to let adults and private institutions decide for themselves how they want to handle drugs; but if money must be spent on one side or the other, clearly, the money should shift from law enforcement and interdiction to drug treatment and education. Continuing to arrest people for marijuana does nothing to reduce demand, and is one of the most expensive aspects of the drug war.

It's also worth noting that 100 of the top 100 questions from the public were about drug policy reform. You read that right.

It wasn't that long ago that discussing the legalization of drugs was akin to discussing whether it should be legal to dump toxic waste on the property line between your yard and your neighbor's yard: Both were such unpopular ideas that there was no need to feature either debate on TV or newspaper editorial pages.

Now, support or opposition to marijuana policy reform is a common discussion in the media and at the dinner table; it's now more akin to discussing school vouchers, with each side polling between 40% and 60%.

The marijuana issue is indeed legitimate, and with support for reform steadily climbing, it's definitely in the spotlight. But it won't be that way forever, so if you want to effect change while the wind is at our backs, you know where to find me.

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Tax and Regulate

Candidate for Oregon Governor Says “It Might Be” a Good Idea to Tax and Regulate Marijuana

Apr 30, 2010 Kate Zawidzki

Bill Bradbury, debate, governor, John Kitzhaber, Oregon

In a live televised debate Wednesday night between Oregon’s two Democratic candidates for governor, one — former Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury — said he thinks “it might be” a good idea to legalize and tax marijuana like we do alcohol. While his complete statement didn’t come off as a whole-hearted endorsement for marijuana policy reform, Bradbury’s answer was much more promising than that of his opponent, former Gov. John Kitzhaber, who said plainly, “I do not support legalizing marijuana or taxing it as a form of income to support schools and other important public services.”

Both candidates said they supported measures that would add dispensaries to Oregon’s medical marijuana law.

Here is Bradbury’s entire answer to the question of whether it would be “a good idea” to tax marijuana like alcohol:

“It might be. But you know, I have a feeling the federal government would pretty quickly step in and say, ‘Sorry, you can’t do that.’ […] I’ve got to tell you, I just don’t think that’s a very realistic solution to the significant revenue problem the state of Oregon is currently facing.”

You can watch a clip of both candidates’ responses by scrolling down on this link. The exchange about marijuana policy occurs in the third video, with about 5:13 remaining.

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