'A Watershed Year': Why Cannabis Policies Matter More Than Ever For 2020 Presidential Hopefuls

Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the organization's legal counsel, is one who understands the gravity of cannabis’ impact on the 2020 presidential election.

"It certainly is a watershed year for those of us who work on marijuana legalization. I think you would be hard-pressed to find an example of where public policy has so overtaken the debate in just a couple of years," he told Benzinga.

It's a sentiment shared by Ellen Mellody, senior vice president of Powerplant Global Strategies. Mellody, who worked in communications and media relations for both the Clinton and Obama administrations, thought that the cannabis discussion may have been influential during the 2016 election.

“It’s actually surprising that the topic didn’t have more of a spotlight in 2016," she said. "If you look at the 2016 election, you have to really wonder if that was a certain mistake for candidates — particularly Hillary Clinton.”

Both Stroup and Mellody pointed to poll numbers that are rising across geographic and party boundaries, indicating that Americans support cannabis and want a discussion on change. That means the policies of this election cycle's candidates are likely to be that much more important to platforms.

Taking a stand against cannabis may be a non-starter for voters this time around.

“It would be political suicide, so to speak, if a candidate were to come out against [cannabis legislation]," Mellody said.

Stroup echoed similar sentiments while shooting down Michael Bloomberg's candidacy after his recent rejection of cannabis legalization.

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The Trump Factor

Barring a rumored primary challenge or willing or unwilling exit from office, President Donald Trump appears poised to vie for a second term as the GOP's 2020 nominee. Trump, a known teetotaler, has not personally supported legalization. That said, his actions over the past two years have left many uncertain of his plans for cannabis — similar to many of his policies.

The appointment of anti-cannabis lawmaker Jeff Sessions as attorney general put the industry’s fate on thin ice. Yet Sessions’ time as AG passed with little action taken. With new AG Bill Barr in place, it appears the industry will be left untouched on the state level.

Some in the industry have long suspected that Trump will push for some cannabis action in the lead-up to 2020 to boost his sagging poll numbers. That said, it is uncertain if that will come to fruition, as Trump recently reaffirmed his administration's ability to ignore federal spending bill provisions which blocks federal interference of state programs and laws.

“If I could predict what President Trump will do,” Mellody said, “I’d be a billionaire.”

Stroup said he wouldn't be shocked if Trump took action to gain support from younger voters.

While Trump can't outright legalize the plant as president, Stroup said he could reschedule cannabis by exercising his power over executive agencies.

This may not move the needle with informed cannabis voters, the NORML founder said.

"In order to be sure and get the federal government out of the way, and allow the states to experiment with different models of legalization if they wish to, we need marijuana totally removed from the Controlled Substances Act."

Kamala Harris And A 'Political Turning Point'

The Democratic field is packed and expected to grow, with numerous hopefuls in the exploratory phase of their candidacy. Almost every candidate person has shown some support for cannabis to varying degrees.

Some names have already cemented their stance on the issue.

They include U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, whose recent comments on the legalization and her personal history with the plant have put her at the front of the pack on the issue. Her statements about the plant giving consumers joy in particular stood out to Stroup, who said it's "a fascinating thing to say."

Harris "is the first nationally, at least national elected official, who I've ever heard say anything even close to that. And I think it's sort of a political turning point."

Stroup's sentiment was not shared by one person: Harris' father Donald.

The elder Harris took umbrage with his daughter's use of her Jamaican heritage to justify cannabis use.

"‘My dear departed grandmothers .. .as well as my deceased parents, must be turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not, with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics," he said in a statement.

The Democrats' Track Record

Multiple Democratic hopefuls have published their positions on cannabis.

They include Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose stance on economic, criminal and racial justice reform was also at the forefront of his 2016 presidential bid.

Others who have taken a position online include Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who also cites criminal justice reform as her reasoning for supporting legalization.

Andrew Yang, the former CEO of Manhattan Prep and founder of the nonprofit Venture for America. also includes support for legalization on his website despite a personal disapproval of the plant.

Other hopefuls, including Harris, have not published their marijuana positions online.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who was endorsed by NORML in 2018 for serving as the lead sponsor of the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, is another 2020 hopeful. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has also made efforts on this front, including serving as chief sponsor of a bill to end federal prohibition of cannabis.

Former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland co-sponsored seven cannabis bills while in Congress but did not introduce any himself. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has signed four cannabis bills and is a co-sponsor of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act.

Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro has not served on Capitol Hill, but did help file a 2014 HUD memo which stated that the owners of federally assisted housing facilities must deny people who use cannabis for any reason. What — if any — impact this will have on his candidacy has yet to register.

Much more should come to the light as the primaries heat up. Cannabis will come into play, but for people like Mellody — and cannabis-sympathetic voters at large — the hope is that each candidate meets with the industry to form their platform and policies.

“As the industry matures, we hope our elected officials do as well [on the topic of cannabis]," Mellody said.

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Posted In: CannabisGovernmentRegulationsPoliticsTop StoriesMarketsInterviewGeneral2020 election2020 presidential electionBernie SandersCory BookerDonald TrumpElizabeth WarrenEllen MellodyKamala HarrisKeith StroupNORMLPowerplant Global Strategies
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