Federal legalization isn’t simply about easy access to cannabis. It’s a social justice issue intricately linked with private prisons and racial disparities. The presidential candidate the USA votes for in the next election will have a significant say in righting the War On Drugs’ past wrongs. Or not.

Legalizing, or at the minimum, rescheduling and decriminalizing cannabis is no longer a taboo topic, but an issue supported by Democrats. However, not all candidates are created equal when it comes to social justice and cannabis reform. Recently, 20 Democratic presidential candidates made it to the debate stage for a second time, to make their cases. But of what’s their stance on the equitable future of the plant?

Beloved Joe Biden has a tragic vote record, while others, such as Cory Booker, have introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which would not only legalize cannabis, but remove funding from states who continue to disportionately arrest people of color. Some candidates, such as Bernie Sanders, have been fighting for legalization for decades. Others, such as Bill de Blasio, are only recently in support of marijuana reform—and their words may not match their actions. 

So where does your favorite candidate stand on cannabis? Read on to learn about the policies of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. 

Michael Bennet

The moderate US. Senator from Colorado is pro-legalization. In February of this year, he co-sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act, which aims to cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. Addressing social justice and prison reform, the bill would withhold federal funding from states that disproportionately use marijuana criminalization laws to go after people of color and low-income individuals.

Joe Biden

Biden’s cannabis policy is disappointing (to say the least) and has been called the worst of all the Democratic candidates. The former vice president has a long history of supporting the War on Drugs, although he recently called for expungement of all past convictions for cannabis use as part of his criminal justice reform plan. Biden supports decriminalization, not legalization.  

Cory Booker

Booker introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which is co-sponsored with fellow candidates. The New Jersey Senator is extremely passionate about cannabis legalization and prison reform. He not only wants to legalize cannabis, but mend the damage caused to the War on Drugs to people of color and low income Americans. Booker’s cannabis policies are comprehensive and compassionate. 

Steve Bullock

The Montana governor hasn’t been vocal about any plans to legalize cannabis, however he does have a history of protecting medical marijuana patients’ rights and has criticized Former United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ outdated views on the plant. 

Pete Buttigieg

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is making history for being openly gay, and his cannabis policies are impressive. While he hasn’t been as outspoken about legalizing marijuana as some of his running mates, Buttigieg supports cannabis reform with an emphasis on criminal justice. 

Julián Castro

Julián Castro is a former US Housing and Urban Development secretary and San Antonio mayor. His political record on cannabis isn’t awe-inspiring, while serving under Obama in 2014, he published a memo which states owners of federally assisted housing are required to deny entry to people who use cannabis, including medical patients. However, Castro’s views seem to have evolved over the past five years. In April of 2019 he tweeted “Legalize it. Then expunge the records of folks who are in prison for marijuana use.”

John Delaney

The former US Representative of Maryland co-sponsored seven cannabis bills during his time in Congress, with aims such as removing CBD from the controlled substances act, protecting medical patients from federal interference, and protecting banks which work with marijuana companies. He also supported an amendment which would allow the VA to include cannabis in treatment for veterans. If elected, Delaney is in favor of removing cannabis from Schedule I classification.

Tulsi Gabbard

The representative from Hawaii is endorsed by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). She’s in favor of legalization and federal descheduling so states may create their own laws. Gabbard is the lead sponsor of the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, and is outspoken about the social justice impacts of prohibition, stating, “The impact this has on individuals, potentially leading to criminal records that impact them, their families, their ability to get a job, housing, financial aid for college—the impacts of this are great.” She supports access to cannabis for veterans and is quick to point out that opioid manufacturers are not held responsible for their part in the opioid epidemic while the lives of marginalized Americans can be destroyed by a little weed.   

Kirsten Gillibrand

The New York Senator supports the national legalization of marijuana. Her plan would also expunge the records of all nonviolent cannabis convictions and utilize the revenue created by cannabis reform for reparations to those affected by the War on Drugs, in particular people of color who are disproportionately affected. The VA, Medicare, and Medicaid would all be required to cover medical marijuana. The money made would also go towards cannabis research. 

Kamala Harris

The California Senator and former state Attorney General says that she will legalize cannabis as part of criminal justice reform. Her website states: “Kamala will take action to legalize marijuana, further reform federal sentencing laws, end private prisons and profiting off of people in prison, and push states to prioritize treatment and rehabilitation for drug offenses.” However, Harris has taken heat for her track record, as she opposed legalization in 2014, although her views appear to shift around 2015. 

John Hickenlooper

The former governor of Colorado initially opposed his state’s 2012 measures to legalize cannabis, calling it “reckless.” He even threw in a Cheeto joke for good measure. He also supported efforts to ban edibles shaped like gummy bears; Hickenlooper has a hang up about snacks. However, while he’s been historically reluctant, Hickenlooper tends to come around regarding Colorado’s cannabis demands, and says he would support national decriminalization if elected. 

Jay Inslee

The Washington State governor earned a rare “A” from NORML for his efforts to protect his home state’s cannabis rights. He supports national legalization and created a program to pardon misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions dating back to 1998. He’s actively taken the offense when federal Justice Department initiatives pose a threat to Washington’s cannabis industry.

Amy Klobuchar

The Senator from Minnesota supports legislation such as expanding cannabis research and reevaluating how the federal government classifies CBD. If elected, Klobuchar says she is in favor of legalizing cannabis. However, she did not add her name to Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, which would legalize cannabis federally and fight Drug War discrimination. 

Beto O’Rourke

Unlike many of the Democratic candidates who are only recent supporters of cannabis legalization, the former Texas US Representative has been fighting the War on Drugs for a decade. O’Rourke has long put forth that legalizing marijuana would weaken drug cartels. Ending prohibition is a bold centerpiece of his campaign. O’Rourke is not only interested in legalizing cannabis at a federal level, but understands that prohibition is a social justice issue which requires prison reform and fighting racist disparities that keep black and brown folks locked up for non-violent cannabis charges while their white counterparts consume freely. 

Tim Ryan

The moderate representative from Ohio supports national legalization and has been supporting pro-cannabis legislation since 2003. Ryan is a co-sponsor on the Marijuana Justice Act. While he’s not in the spotlight as much as some of his colleagues regarding cannabis reform, his voting track record speaks for itself. In 2018 he wrote an op-ed for CNN laying out the systemic racist effects of the War on Drugs and why we need to end it. If elected, Ryan would fight to legalize cannabis nationally while tackling intertwined social justice issues.

Bernie Sanders

The Senator from Vermont and progressive icon wants to legalize cannabis nationally. He calls the War on Drugs “costly, destructive, and ineffective” on his website. Sanders says that non-violent drug offenders should be released and he wants to replace such prison sentencing with treatment to address drug dependencies. In the 2016 election, Sanders became the first major presidential candidate to support national legalization. He’s co-sponsored pro-cannabis legislation as far back as 20 years ago, demonstrating a long-standing and consistent stance in favor of the plant. 

Elizabeth Warren

The Massachusetts Senator supports national legalization of cannabis. She says she’s driven by racial disparities as her motivator and seeks to end prohibition as part of her criminal justice plan. She co-sponsored Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act, has fought to protect banks who work with cannabis companies, and has spoken out about ending private prisons. 

Marianne Williamson

Spiritual leader Marianne Williamson has never held office so has no voting record regarding cannabis. However, she’s in favor of ending prohibition. Williamson tweeted: “We should legalize marijuana and release nonviolent offenders who’ve been incarcerated because of it. The most dangerous drug dealers in America are legal pharmaceutical companies that knowingly overmanufacturer, falsely advertise, and promote overprescription of addictive substances.” While other candidates mention the harmful effects of over prescribed opioids, it’s worth noting that Williamson has made controversial statements about other pharmaceuticals such as antidepressants

Andrew Yang

The entrepreneur, attorney, philanthropist, and founder of Venture for America is in favor of national cannabis legalization. He believes that legalization at a federal law would increase uniformity and safety of use, fight racial disparities in marijuana arrests, and create billions in revenue. Yang says that if he’s elected he will legalize cannabis and pardon all non-violent drug offenders on April 20 (4/20) 2021. 

Bill de Blasio

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his support for cannabis legalization in 2018, after a track record of opposing it. While his campaign paints de Blasio as a social justice champion, cracking down on racial disparities in cannabis arrests, the reality is much different. The Drug Policy Alliance reports that New York City cannabis arrests under de Blasio are marked by “extremely high racial disparities.” 

By Sophie Saint Thomas

August 6, 2019

Sophie Saint Thomas is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn originally from the US Virgin Islands. Her writing is published in GQ, Playboy, VICE, Cosmopolitan, Forbes, Allure, Glamour, Marie Claire, and more.