Democrats on Marijuana Policy


On Oct. 13, 2015, political junkies who just cannot get enough of pre-pre-pre-2016 maneuvering will have the chance to see and hear from the likely Democratic candidates for the nomination. With any luck and some social media pressure, there might even be a question about marijuana legalization. So who other than Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are in the race and where do they stand on marijuana policy?

On the stage in Nevada will be Democrats former Secretary of State Clinton, Vermont Sen. Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. Even if he is not actually there, Vice President Joe Biden’s presence will likely be felt.

Legalization and related issues like social consumption will be on the ballot in as many as 11 states, so the impact of the marijuana vote on the presidential contest and vice versa is more than a matter of idle speculation. It is also notable that all the declared Democratic candidates are from the East Coast, which many see the next big marijuana frontier.


Hillary Clinton

In its grading of likely presidential candidates on marijuana policy, the Marijuana Policy Project gives Secretary Clinton a B-minus.

She has expressed a willingness to support more research into the potential medical benefits of marijuana. When asked about the legalization laws approved in Colorado and Washington, she said “states are the laboratories of democracy,” and she wants to see what happens in those states prior to taking a position in support or opposition to such laws. However, she has also, on several occasions, described marijuana as a gateway drug.

As with other candidates, her position seems to have been evolving. In 2007, she reportedly opposed decriminalization, and in 2012, she opposed legalization.


Bernie Sanders

MPP gives Senator Sanders a solid B. He supports decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana and the legalization of medical marijuana. He has also been critical of the war on drugs, particularly with regard to uneven enforcement.

He has stated that when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt., “very few people were arrested for smoking marijuana. Our police had more important things to do.”  He acknowledges using marijuana when he was younger.


Martin O’Malley

MPP gives Governor O’Malley a C-minus. When he was governor of Maryland, he took a stand against even the medical use of marijuana. He did, however, sign a bill that decriminalized the possession of small amounts and another that created a workable medical marijuana program, now on the verge of implementation. He has also described marijuana as a gateway drug, but has expressed support for re-classifying it as a Schedule II, rather than a Schedule I drug.


Lincoln Chaffee

MPP gives the former governor, former Republican a B-plus on marijuana policy. He has expressed a desire to explore the potential benefits of taxing and regulating marijuana, and has described experiments with legalization in Uruguay, Washington and Colorado as successful.

His conversion has been relatively recent, however. He opposed medical marijuana efforts in Rhode Island as late as 2011


Jim Webb

MPP also gives Senator Webb a B-plus. The former senator introduced legislation to reform the criminal justice system, has been an outspoken critic of the war on drugs and supports the decriminalization of marijuana.

He had advocated youth education programs that would discourage marijuana use much like those that now target cigarette use.


Joe Biden

MPP gives the Vice President a D. As a senator, he took a stand against legalization and supported legislation that created mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for marijuana-related offenses. As Vice President, he has moderated his stand somewhat, speaking in favor of reducing the priority of federal enforcement. He continues to oppose legalization and has also endorsed the concept that marijuana is a gateway drug.


Looking Toward 2016

Purely on the basis of marijuana policy, Chaffee and Webb would seem to the best choices for marijuana advocates. Only Chaffee has expressed support for regulated marijuana commerce.

Thereafter, in order of preference, it would seem to be Sanders, Clinton and O’Malley, with Vice President Biden bringing up the rear. Much will change, of course, in the intervening 13 months, but the issue of marijuana legalization is certain to play a significant role in the 2016 election, even more so if voters make their voices heard.

Anne Wallace is a New York lawyer who writes extensively on legal and business issues. She also teaches law and business writing at the college and professional level. Anne graduated from Fordham Law School and Wellesley College.

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