President Trump: America’s Great Marijuana Savior. It’s an idea that may sound counterintuitive to many Americans who falsely believe that Democrats and their allies on the left have been the sole champions of legalizing cannabis. While the left side of the aisle may traditionally have been more likely to support legalization, no party has ever had a monopoly on the issue.
And now we have a president—one known for his unpredictability—who recently signaled a willingness to support reform. President Trump, whether premeditated or not, is putting himself in a position to make history by becoming the U.S. president who reversed a nearly century-long policy of marijuana prohibition and, in so doing, reap the political spoils of taking on the mantle of “the legalization president.”
This idea is not so far-fetched. Trump has every reason politically to become an unlikely champion of marijuana legalization. Given the overwhelming public support of the issue, legalizing marijuana will certainly improve his chances of reelection in 2020. If he does, the Democrats will have nobody to blame but themselves.
Talk of President Trump’s potential support picked up steam in early June when he stated that he would “probably” support the STATES Act, a new bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that would exempt legal state-licensed cannabis businesses from the Controlled Substances Act, eliminating the fear of federal prosecution, as well as banking and tax issues that currently plague the industry.
But this isn’t new ground for the current president. During the 2016 campaign, in an interview with KUSA-TV in Colorado, Donald Trump was asked if his administration would crack down on cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state laws. His response: “I wouldn’t do that, no … I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”
Earlier in the campaign, back in October 2015, Trump discussed the issue at a campaign rally, announcing: “The marijuana thing is such a big thing. I think medical should happen—right? Don’t we agree? I think so. … I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.”
Granted, the president’s position on this issue has not been consistent, and nobody should mistake him for a champion of legalization. His embrace of legalization would be a reversal spurred by purely political motives. At the same time he was touting respect for states’ rights and support for medical cannabis, he expressed disdain for full legalization. In June 2016, when asked about legalization at a CPAC conference, he responded: “I say it’s bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think [recreational marijuana] it’s bad. And I feel strongly about that.”
But what about states’ rights? “If they vote for it, they vote for it. But they’ve got a lot of problems going on right now, in Colorado. Some big problems. But I think medical marijuana, 100 percent.”
Republican Support Not New; Democratic Support Not Universal
Many may believe that Trump is an outlier when it comes to Republican support for marijuana reform, but historically this has never been a traditional left-wing issue. Until recently, the only elected officials willing to champion cannabis-reform legislation came from the fringes of both parties. The States’ Rights to Medical Marijuana Act, the only federal legislation introduced throughout the 2000s that would have protected state medical marijuana laws, was co-sponsored every year by far-left Democrat Barney Frank and far-right Republican Ron Paul. Neither could muster more than token support from other members of their parties in Congress.
While support for legalization has historically been somewhat stronger among Democratic Party politicians than their GOP counterparts, Democrats have been slow to embrace reform even while their constituents have been much further ahead. For example, while the STATES Act has the support of President Trump, it lacks support from Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat.
Some of the past’s most ardent drug warriors in Congress came from the Democratic delegation. The harsh mandatory minimum sentences enacted in the 1980s that largely led to today’s mass-incarceration problem were championed by then Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, someone generally revered as a progressive hero.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, has long been one of the strongest supporters of the War on Drugs, having campaigned vigorously against every proposed marijuana-reform proposal on the California ballot, including Prop 215 in 1996 that legalized medical marijuana and Prop 64 in 2016 that ended prohibition altogether in the state. Only this year—once it had become politically untenable for a California Democrat to support prohibition, and she faced a progressive challenger in a contentious primary race—did Sen. Feinstein come around on cannabis reform.
Even President Obama, largely celebrated by the cannabis industry for having not cracked down on Colorado and Washington after they became the first states to end marijuana prohibition, never had the political courage to call for real reform at the federal level, despite majority support for legalization among the general public and overwhelming support amongst registered Democrats. While the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House from 2008 to 2010, not a single major marijuana-reform legislation was approved. Not until 2014, under a GOP-controlled House during Obama’s second term, was a budget rider passed that prevents the justice department from cracking down on state-legal medical marijuana businesses, an amendment largely championed by Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
In 2010, two years before Colorado and Washington voted to legalize, 54% of Democrats already supported full legalization, according to Gallup, but you couldn’t find a single national Democratic party leader willing to champion legislative efforts to end prohibition. Despite the writing being on the wall for nearly a decade, Democrats have missed out on chances to own this issue and the political benefits that come along with it—in particular, the 70% of millennials who support legalization, according to the Pew Research Center.
It Didn’t Have To Be This Way
Democrats blew it. In the 2016 election, Democrats had an opportunity to own this issue, especially in a campaign in which millennial voters showed record levels of dissatisfaction with the major-party candidates. Hillary Clinton could have chosen to go further than President Obama and support an end to federal cannabis prohibition, as some Democratic party political strategists were urging at the time. Yet, just as Democratic leaders had for years, she chose the “politically safe” route and only endorsed medical marijuana, while calling on the federal government to study the legalization programs in Colorado and Washington. This essentially put no daylight between her position and that of then-candidate Trump, losing what was perhaps the Democrats’ last opportunity to reap the political spoils of being the party to embrace legalization.
This has opened up a huge opportunity for President Trump to own this issue in a way that no president ever has, eliminating any chance Democrats may have had to earn the political gains of embracing legalization. The Democrats have potentially ceded these benefits to the president, who could potentially use them with staggering effectiveness during his reelection campaign.
From President Trump’s point of view, there is virtually no political downside to championing legalization. His base has already shown a willingness to stick with him through any number of political scandals and controversial policies. If his evangelical supporters have stayed loyal despite allegations of extramarital affairs, paying hush money to porn stars, accusations of sexual assault and harassment, calling white supremacists “very fine people,” and separating children from their parents at the border, it is hard to imagine them abandoning him for supporting the legalization of a healing plant.
In fact, he could realize some very real political gains by supporting legalization. A record high 64% of Americans now support legalizing marijuana at the federal level, including 51% of Republicans, according to a recent Gallup poll. Even in deep-red Oklahoma, voters recently overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana law through a ballot initiative that was opposed by the entire state GOP establishment.
Political Ammo For 2020
Given that President Trump’s approval ratings have consistently teetered around 40% throughout his term, he will need to look for new issues heading into the 2020 election that can earn him votes from constituencies that may not otherwise be inclined to support the reelection of a controversial president. There’s arguably no issue more ripe for this kind of political swing than marijuana legalization. In particular, the aforementioned millennial voters support legalization in record numbers, and while they tend to lean progressive, they don’t have a strong loyalty to either party.
The president and his political advisors may well understand these ramifications. And looking at the political map, coming out in support of legalization may become a political no-brainer. The most important swing states in the 2020 presidential election all have some form of legalization in place: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida have all legalized medical marijuana and are in the process of implementing their legal markets. Purple states like Colorado and Nevada have thriving adult-use markets, while Michigan is expected to legalize for all adults this November. The president will need to win many of these states if he wants to keep his job, and legalization will only help his prospects of doing so.
Late To The Party
The Democratic Party is finally catching up to the political realities on this issue. As previously mentioned, even staunch prohibitionists like Dianne Feinstein have come around to supporting reform. Peruse the field of likely Democratic primary nominees for president and you’ll find that each has either sponsored legislation to end prohibition or made positive statements on the subject. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris have all introduced or sponsored legalization bills in the Senate. Even New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, traditionally an opponent of ending prohibition, has gotten on board with the idea in recent months.
But the new wave of Democratic support for the issue may be coming too late for the party to enjoy the political gains. In addition to the president’s recent overtures on this issue, we’ve seen more support from the GOP side of the aisle than ever before. The fact that the STATES Act is being championed by conservative Republican Senator Cory Gardner is significant, signaling that politicians from both parties who represent legal marijuana states must stand up for the will of their voters or risk electoral defeat.
This is not to say that Republican elected officials have gotten the memo. GOP leadership in the House—not to mention Attorney General Jeff Sessions—has retained their retrograde position in favor of prohibition, routinely refusing to allow votes to be called on even the tamest reform bills and amendments. In particular, Republican chairs of key committees in the House and Senate have no plans to hold hearings on the STATES Act, despite President Trump’s tacit approval. In addition, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), chairman of the powerful rules committee, has steadfastly refused to call a vote on a number of amendments that would certainly pass with strong bipartisan support, demonstrating how one powerful member of the House can derail an otherwise popular proposal. But even Pete Sessions is out of touch with his constituents. A recent poll suggests that 61% of Texans support the legalization of marijuana. The state’s Republican party also recently added support for decriminalization to the party platform.
But while current GOP leadership in the House clings to their outdated support of prohibition, former Republican House Speaker John Boehner recently joined the board of directors of multi-state marijuana company Acreage, and has become an outspoken advocate for replacing marijuana prohibition with legalization and regulation. Republican governors Brian Sandoval (NV), Jan Brewer (AZ), and Charlie Baker (MA) have dutifully implemented their states’ medical or legalization programs after initially opposing the ballot initiatives. And Republican Phil Scott of Vermont became the first governor in the country to sign a legalization bill into law.
With 2020 Democratic hopefuls now competing amongst themselves to be seen as the most pro-legalization, President Trump could neutralize this issue politically for the Democrats by fully embracing legalization prior to the 2020 elections. His statements in favor of a states-rights approach to the issue, and his stated support of the STATES Act, signal a willingness to explore this issue in a way that no president from either party has done to date. It is not hard to imagine this president taking one more step forward and fully embracing the moniker of “the legalization president” in the hopes of stealing what should have been a political win for Democrats and galvanizing certain voters for whom drug-policy reform is of primary importance and who otherwise might have been inclined to support his opponent.
The lack of political courage and foresight on the part of Democratic Party leaders over the past decade may have opened the door to something once unthinkable in American politics: that a Republican president—one as detested and loathed by progressives as President Trump—could ultimately be the person credited with ending marijuana prohibition and all of the societal ills that come with it.