There’s a presidential contest that’s been underway since President Trump entered the Oval Office just over two years ago, but it hasn’t garnered national headlines. It’s the pot primary, and it’s fierce.
The battle to be more pro-pot than other Democratic presidential candidates has largely been taking place on the grounds of the nation’s austere Capitol—where marijuana possession can still get you locked in prison. While it may be the People’s House, it’s technically government property. So even though recreational marijuana is legal in Washington, D.C., lingering federal prohibition means you can get arrested for bringing weed to the Capitol.
As the Democratic presidential primary continues to ramp up, many of the candidates are trying to out marijuana each other, which even just three years ago would have been anathema to political consultants who are the puppet masters of these presidential campaigns.
That’s why many in this seemingly overcrowded field of White House aspirants are clamoring to get their divergent marijuana legalization proposals covered. A press secretary for long-shot candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) reached out to The Daily Beast this week to alert us to her bill—The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act—which she is dropping Thursday morning.
“Our archaic marijuana policies cost our country so much,” Gabbard told The Daily Beast after we took the bait. “We need to be investing in our people and our communities, and these outdated, destructive policies are doing exactly the opposite. They’re turning everyday Americans into criminals—tearing families apart.”
Gabbard—and her comms team—brag that “her” legislation is “the only bipartisan bill ever introduced in Congress that would de-schedule marijuana." Longest serving Republican member of Congress in U.S. history, Don Young of Alaska, is the lead GOP sponsor of the measure.
So while Gabbard wants voters to think she’s the most pro-pot lawmaker in this field full of pro-pot Democrats, she doesn’t own the mantle of marijuana justice warrior. That title goes to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a health nut who proudly rocks the mantle of teetotaler, doesn’t even know how to make a margarita, and says he’s never smoked weed (even if he once quipped with me that I should smoke up his chief of staff, who then blushed with embarrassment).
In 2014, the junior senator from New Jersey teamed up with libertarian-leaning former GOP presidential aspirant Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to introduce a failed amendment that would have blocked the Department of Justice from using taxpayer dollars for going after marijuana businesses in states where voters decided to legalize. Then in 2015, he made history by filing the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (or CARERS) Act, which was the first bill to ever be filed in Congress to reschedule marijuana in the federal code.
Booker has also sponsored and advocated for the most sweepingly progressive reimagining of the nation’s failed war on drugs with his Marijuana Justice Act. It would not only remove pot from the list of federally scheduled narcotics but would also create a fund for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to use to invest money directly into the communities left the most blighted by the war on drugs.
Booker has pledged to make drug-policy reforms a central plank of his White House bid, and he says he’s also seeing progress on his efforts in the marble halls of the Capitol.
“There is definitely—every Congress I’ve been here—movement being made,” Booker told The Daily Beast. “When I started talking about marijuana policy my very first year here, there’s many more people who are joining, sort of this coalition to try to advance marijuana laws here in the United States Senate, which is encouraging to me.”
Booker isn’t alone in the Senate race to own the mantle of marijuana justice warrior. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) far out-paced Hillary Clinton on the issue in the 2016 primary. In fact for more than two decades he’s called for decriminalizing medical cannabis—way before it became politically en vogue—and in the last primary he dropped a bill to legalize marijuana federally.
And while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) told me last year that she’s never smoked weed—as she was not so subtly laying the ground for her White House bid—she teamed up with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) to push the STATES Act, which would allow voters in all 50 states to decide their own marijuana policies (something President Trump has reportedly endorsed in private).
Then there’s former musician-turned-lawmaker-turned-seeming-hippie-road-tripper Beto O’Rourke, who made marijuana legalization a positive issue in red Texas. While he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, he made a splash and garnered an enviable national following by embracing legalization in a massive state that Democratic leaders hope to turn blue in 2020.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is also all in on marijuana, recently saying it “gives a lot of people joy.” Though her seemingly gushing recollections of toking while listening to Tupac and Snoop Dogg while in college got her in trouble, because her dates just didn’t add up (their first albums weren’t dropped until she was well out of any sophomoric collegiate atmosphere).
The nation’s favorite uncle, former VP Joe Biden, who is reported to be staffing up for a possible presidential bid, is the downer in this field. The purported teetotaler opposes coast-to-coast legalization, even as he has moved with his party and done a 180 on the issue, and now says he supports decriminalization.
Finally, there are the governors. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) opposed marijuana before his voters opposed his stance on weed and forced him to implement what’s arguably the nation’s gold standard of local pot policy. He still isn’t on board with federal legalization. And former Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) was also opposed, initially, but then, along with Hickenlooper and other governors in both parties, became a fierce critic of former-prohibitionist-Attorney-General Jeff Sessions.
While there are dozens of competing proposals on the Hill, Rep. Gabbard of Hawaii says her federal decriminalization bill is the best. “It is very simple. It is very clear. It is very direct and deals with the underlying issue of taking marijuana off as a Schedule One drug,” Gabbard said.
But she is also dropping a more modest measure Thursday: The Marijuana Data Collection Act. It would commission the National Academy of Science—an objective, non-partisan body of scientists—to study the effects of medicinal and recreational marijuana.
“So even those who currently may not support ending the prohibition cannot oppose making sure that we have a federally commissioned study that provides the facts,” Gabbard said.
All these competing proposals make it seem like Democrats are at war with each other but they’re not really.
Most of the candidates are just following voters, on Wednesday Quinnipiac published a poll showing that around 60 percent of Americans now say weed should be treated like beer. Legal, regulated and kept out of the hands of minors.
So if Trump or Republicans try to use marijuana as a wedge issue, advocates say: Bring it on.
“Ignoring the will of the people,” said Morgan Fox, of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “And failing to support sensible cannabis policy reform will have consequences for elected officials of any party.”