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.