What Does the November Presidential Election Mean for Cannabis Legalization in the U.S.?

What will a Joe Biden or Donald Trump Presidency mean for cannabis legalization in the United States after 2020?

On Tuesday the 3rd of November, the United States will decide who their president will be, for at least the next four years. The choices are currently between the former Vice President under the Barack Obama presidency, Joe Biden, and a continuation of the current Donald Trump Administration. More recently, Kanye West has thrown his red hat in the ring and announced on Twitter that he would be running during this election cycle, though whether or not he actually does it remains uncertain at this point.

2020 has been an entirely unconventional lead-up to these elections, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affecting the United States and the globe at large, and the rise of the more recent Black Lives Matter protests and riots. This has led to a fairly uneventful campaign cycle, as candidates have been forced to socially distance and maintain a focus on the ongoing issues rather than their individual campaigns. Donald Trump only recently held his first campaign rally in the lead-up to the election cycle in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and this was met with criticism due to the lack of social distancing, and also for the lack of people in attendance of the event.

But now, as we draw nearer to November and U.S. citizens begin to come to a decision on which candidate they'd like to support, some may be wondering how each potential candidate will impact cannabis legalization in the United States.

So, let's unpack each candidate's stance on cannabis and see how their presidency might impact future cannabis policies.

What is Donald Trump's Stance on Cannabis Legalization?

As Donald Trump has been president for the past four years, it's safe to say that we've witnessed his cannabis policy in action; that is to say, his inaction on the matter. Donald Trump has famously said that he would "leave [cannabis legalization] up to the states," and this has summed up his approach to cannabis thus far.

President Trump's stance on cannabis has changed over the years, with him previously stating to GQ that "[cannabis] for medicinal purposes, medical purposes, absolutely is fine."

The U.S. President has also told the Washington Post, "In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state. Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen — right? Don't we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states."

Finally, on the topic of medical marijuana, Trump told Bill O'Reilly, "I know people that have serious problems and [medical marijuana] — it really does help them," Trump said.

In fact, in 2018, Trump went as far as to say he would end the federal ban on marijuana, allowing businesses to access federal funding more easily.

Though as we mentioned, his tenure has been relatively uneventful when it comes to cannabis. While the cannabis industry was deemed 'essential' amid the COVID-19 crisis, and dispensaries were allowed to remain open, the industry was also excluded from any coronavirus stimulus packages due to its federal illegality. Moreover, allegations recently surfaced that the Attorney General under the Trump Administration, Bill Barr, was alleged to have been fuelled by an anti-marijuana bias when he focused almost a third of the Antitrust probes into company mergers within the cannabis industry.

The allegations toward Barr are concerning and if proven true would certainly show that the Trump administration hasn't been great for cannabis legalization. However, without knowing that the allegations are true, the rest of Donald Trump's presidency has been relatively hands-off from cannabis, with little change to the status quo. Unless evidence emerges that Donald Trump will shift his tact toward cannabis upon re-election, we can expect that a continuation of the Trump Administration will similarly be a continuation of the status quo, with states having the responsibility to change their own cannabis legislation should they wish to.

What would a Joe Biden Presidency Mean for Cannabis Legalization?

So we've established that a Donald Trump re-election would be relatively uneventful for cannabis legalization, but what about his opponent on the Democrat side of the aisle, Joe Biden? Would a Joe Biden presidency push the envelope with regard to U.S. cannabis legalization?

One could assume that a Biden presidency would lead to a change in the current cannabis policy, simply because by definition, him replacing Donald Trump is a disruption to the status quo. However, this isn't necessarily true. For starters, Joe Biden has been in politics since 1973, and his record hardly reflects a history of cannabis advocacy. Moreover, he has historically made many negative statements about cannabis legalization, up until very recently.

Just a few months ago, Joe Biden released his "Plan for Black America" on Medium and his website, which states that should he be elected, Biden will seek to "Advance the economic mobility of African Americans and close the racial wealth and income gap."

As a means to do this, Biden states that he will "decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions, and end all incarceration for drug use alone and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment."

The move represents a leftward shift for the former Vice President, who had previously stated that "there has not nearly been enough evidence…as to whether or not [cannabis] is a gateway drug."

At the time, Biden received a lot of flack for his comments, as they go against the thoughts of the U.S. general public, two-thirds of which support cannabis legalization.

Though even Biden's newfound approach to cannabis which aims to decriminalize the plant on a federal basis remains a departure from his peers on the Democrat side of the aisle, as virtually all of them have said they would support all-out cannabis legalization.

Bernie Sanders, for example, was the final remaining Democratic candidate aside from Joe Biden, and Bernie vowed to federally legalize cannabis within his first 50 days of Presidency if he won the election. This is particularly important as Biden has been bringing in predominantly older voters while struggling to attract younger voters. Bernie, on the other hand, had the exact opposite problem; a large base of young voters, but not enough older voters. For this reason, cannabis could be a pivotal issue for Biden if he's to secure more younger voters.

Which U.S. President is Better for Cannabis Legalization?

Evidently, Joe Biden has made comments as of late which suggests that he has more favourable views toward cannabis than his opponent, the current U.S. President Donald Trump. Although more than half of all U.S. states have already decriminalized the plant, Biden's efforts to decriminalize cannabis throughout the rest of the U.S. would still have powerful ramifications over the long term.

This is because, first and foremost, the decriminalization of cannabis shifts the perception of its usage from one of criminality to a health issue, which is more fitting in many respects than the current policy. Additionally, through the decriminalization of cannabis and the expungement of cannabis-related crimes, those who have been convicted of the non-violent offense of drug use will no longer face barriers to employment.

And when one looks toward the broader historical impact of the decriminalization of cannabis, it often precedes eventual legalization of cannabis for recreational use, and can be considered a step closer toward it rather than keeping the plant federally illegal.

In conclusion, while Joe Biden's proposed changes to the current cannabis legislation are relatively piecemeal, they still represent a more positive impact on legislation than we're seeing from the Trump Campaign or the Republican GOP. In this respect, should Biden be elected in November, we may see a slight acceleration of the current momentum behind cannabis in the U.S.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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