SAN FRANCISCO — Marijuana legalization just moved from the fringes of the last presidential campaign to center stage in 2020.
Between a sweeping new package of legislation introduced last week by one of the top Democratic presidential prospects and, on the other end of the spectrum, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vigorous opposition to recreational use of marijuana, the debate over legalization of cannabis is about to receive a full airing on the presidential campaign trail.
While Bernie Sanders also supported medicinal use of marijuana and the decriminalization of recreational marijuana, drug policy stayed on the outskirts of the 2016 presidential debate and the growing action at the state level was barely acknowledged.
Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, a bipartisan non-profit advocacy group, said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s introduction of “the farthest reaching bill ever proposed” will have a catalytic effect on the politics of legalized marijuana and the myriad criminal justice issues related to it.
“Booker is getting a ton of fantastic press about this,’’ he said. “And other candidates will notice that and will want to say, “I agree — and I want to introduce a bill of my own.”
Booker’s roll out of the Marijuana Justice Act — introduced to a wide audience via Facebook Live — was more than just a call for legalizing marijuana at the federal level. The measure also addresses withholding federal funds for the construction of jails and prisons from states whose pot laws are shown to disproportionately incarcerate minorities; expunging federal convictions for cannabis use; and mandating sentencing hearings for prisoners now serving time for pot offenses.
“You see these marijuana arrests happening so much in our country, targeting certain communities — poor communities, minority communities — targeting people with an illness,” Booker, the former mayor of Newark, said.
With Republicans in control of the House and Senate, the ambitious legislation is viewed as unlikely to pass. But it’s attachment to a top prospective 2020 candidate — and the growing action on marijuana legalization at the state level — all but guarantees presidential contenders will need a fully formed position.
Several possible presidential candidates — Booker and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — have already signed on to a separate bipartisan medical marijuana bill. In Massachusetts, where voters approved a ballot measure last year legalizing recreational marijuana, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has addressed the issues of creating legal and secure banking for the cannabis industry.
On the Republican side, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has called for a repeal on the pot prohibition — making him popular with young libertarians — and won some conservative backing with his strong stand for states’ rights on the issue.
That’s the same stance that was endorsed repeatedly by President Donald Trump, who also enthusiastically backed medical marijuana legalization on the campaign trail — though many cannabis advocates now worry about Sessions’ hard line opposition.
Booker’s effort has already earned kudos from some on the forefront of the legal cannabis industry like Jim Patterson, CEO of California-based Eaze, which calls itself the nation’s fastest growing cannabis technology firm — one which already boasts 20-minute home delivery services to medical marijuana patients in markets like San Francisco.
“We admire his bravery,’’ Patterson said. “He is taking a powerful stand and we need more politicians who are willing to be bold.”
“We welcome Senator Booker’s call to action,’’ said John Malanca, co-founder of the California-based United Patients Group, a national organization that specializes in promoting cannabis education for patients, doctors and adult users.
Malanca — who was recently invited to Capitol Hill by the recently-formed, bipartisan Congressional Cannabis Caucus to advocate for safety and quality issues — said that the senator’s move may now spark “great opportunity for both parties to work together on something that has a groundswell of support.’’
Yet it’s also likely to force a fulsome debate over the marijuana issue in the run up to the 2020 presidential election. Already, in the two governors races on the ballot in 2017 — New Jersey and Virginia — the Democratic nominees have staked out clear positions in favor of decriminalization.
Polls clearly show that “legal access to cannabis is the future,’’ says Malanca. “If you are against medical cannabis access, or against cannabis legalization, you’re already in the minority.”
A recent CBS News poll tracked 61 percent support for legal cannabis — a five-percentage-point bump up from last year — and the highest percentage ever recorded in the poll. And nearly three quarters of Americans now support a states rights approach — that states should be allowed to make the decision on legal pot sales — and oppose government moves to crack down in states that have legalized cannabis, the poll showed.
After California officially became the largest legal cannabis market in the world last November with approval of Prop. 64, Nevada — a key Western swing state — followed last month to become the fifth state to legalize recreational use of the drug. States are hungrily eyeing tax revenues from the cannabis market, where revenues topped $5.8 billion in 2016, and are expected to conservative reach $7 billion by 2020, experts say.
Willie Brown, the former California House speaker and San Francisco mayor who successfully carried one of the nation’s first cannabis-related reform bills to decriminalize the drug in 1973, says the political climate has shifted markedly from the days when “we couldn’t talk legalization — hell no.”
But he notes Booker wasn’t the vanguard Democrat to understand how deeply the issue of legal recreational cannabis resonated, especially with millennial voters.
“Gavin Newsom was the first,’’ he noted, saying that the California Democratic lieutenant governor stepped out in front and backed legalization of recreational pot in the nation’s most populous state nearly two years ago.
Newsom’s strong endorsement and campaigning helped pass Prop. 64 — and set the stage for him to take the frontrunner spot in the 2018 governor’s race, Brown noted.
In recent days, Newsom’s rival, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, has edged toward a more liberal stance, saying at a public forum that “cannabis is going to be the new alcohol business.” State Treasurer John Chiang, another California gubernatorial candidate, has been holding statewide hearings on cannabis banking issues.
Even California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who has taken a more cautious stance on the issue, is on board for marijuana decriminalization. Harris, a first-term senator who is frequently mentioned as a prospective presidential candidate in 2020, told a progressive group last month: “While I don’t believe in legalizing all drugs…we need to do the smart, thing, the right thing, and finally decriminalize marijuana.”