Will the U.S. Legalize Cannabis in 2020?

In 2019, legislators reduced protections for veterans, blocked cannabis banking, and cannabis businesses spent millions on lobbying. But, watch out—2020 is an election year.
January 15, 2020
Written by Rob Hoffman
U.S. Cannabis Legalization

©darren415 – stock.adobe.com

The year was 2020, and cannabis was finally legal—there’s a sentence you’ll likely never read in the history books. The decade may be new, but it’s filled with the same old politicians.

With President Trump opposed to legalizing cannabis at the federal level, it’s unlikely 2020 will be the year that legal recreational cannabis becomes available in all 50 states. But, there may be good news ahead. It’s an election year and the majority of presidential hopefuls want cannabis reform on the table. So, while the U.S. may not legalize cannabis in 2020, the following year looks promising. 

Will the U.S. Legalize Cannabis in 2020?

Reform efforts continue to make steady strides forward, with more and more legislative support and state initiatives every month. But, with Donald Trump firmly against legalizing cannabis at the federal level, the likelihood of legalization taking place in 2020 is very slim. President Trump has a long history of flip-flopping his position on cannabis. Mr. Trump isn’t a cannabis advocate, nor is he an anti-cannabis crusader, and overall the exact details of his future cannabis policies remain unclear. What we do know is that the President does not support legalizing cannabis at the federal level. 

Come November, however, Trump will face some stiff competition. 2020 is an election year in the United States, meaning that there is at least a chance that a cannabis-friendly candidate will get elected in November, with the promise of legalization in early 2021. In the meantime, state-level change is likely the most we can expect in 2020. As you wait out the election season, your state governor and local politicians are still your greatest hope for meaningful cannabis reform.

Will the U.S. Legalize Cannabis After the 2020 Election?

For many voters, support for cannabis legalization is a decisive issue when choosing a candidate. For dedicated activists, the 2020 election is a time of excitement. Most of this year’s presidential candidates publicly support legalizing cannabis (in one way or another) for adult use. But, this election season isn’t all sunshine and rainbows for cannabis reform. Two candidates, Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg, are firmly against legalization. President Donald Trump is also up for re-election but has yet to support serious cannabis reform through his current presidency. 

Unfortunately for advocates of federal cannabis legalization, Joe Biden is the current Democratic frontrunner and Trump is the top Republican candidate. If Biden is elected in November, the likelihood of cannabis legalization getting the green light even in 2021 remains slim. Still, with almost a year between now and the 2020 elections, anything could happen. If there’s one thing we know about election season, it’s that frontrunners don’t always stay at the top for long, and even the most reliable polls can’t be trusted. 

Cannabis reform 2020

Have you registered to vote yet? 2020 is the first year that cannabis reform has been a serious point of discussion during a presidential election. Photo: ©artfriday – stock.adobe.com

What Will Happen to Cannabis if Trump Is Re-elected?

When it comes to cannabis reform, President Trump is a bit of a wild card.

His position of cannabis has historically changed to coincide with election seasons. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump claimed that his position on cannabis would be to allow each state to determine its own policies without government interference. Once he was elected, however, Mr. Trump’s Attorney General at the time, Jeff Sessions, rescinded benchmark cannabis policy that afforded states exactly that—the freedom to craft their own cannabis laws.

More recently, President Trump’s new Attorney General, William Barr, has supported policy allowing each state to determine its own approach to cannabis. In late August, Mr. Trump himself also stated that he will support individual states’ rights to make their own decisions about cannabis. However, it’s worth noting that these statements were made with an election around the corner—much like his position in 2016.

In the end, cannabis does not seem to be an important issue for President Trump, nor does he plan to legalize cannabis on the federal level. More likely is that, given a second term in office, Mr.Trump would continue to allow each state to determine its own cannabis laws.

Politicians Most Likely to Legalize Cannabis

With 12 Democrats and three Republicans running for office in 2020, it’s safe to say that keeping track of who supports what can get a little confusing. Most Democratic presidential candidates support the federal legalization of cannabis. However, some candidates have made cannabis legalization a greater priority than others. The top contenders include:

  • Bernie Sanders (D);
  • Bill Weld (R);
  • Pete Buttigieg (D);
  • Elizabeth Warren (D);
  • Andrew Yang (D);
  • Amy Klobuchar (D);
  • Tulsi Gabbard (D);
  • and Joe Walsh (R).

Here’s where each of them stand.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is perhaps the candidate most likely to legalize cannabis in 2020. In the past, Sanders introduced legislation with the intention of ending federal cannabis prohibition. He’s also promised to “legalize marijuana in the first 100 days” of his presidency via executive action, along with expunging all past cannabis-related convictions, reinvesting cannabis revenue into the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs, and ensuring legal cannabis “does not turn into big tobacco.” These promises are listed directly on the Bernie Sanders website, and offer the boldest and immediate route to cannabis legalization given the specific timeline of “first 100 days.”

Bill Weld

Bill Weld is perhaps almost as likely as Sanders to legalize cannabis in some form after election. The former Governor of Massachusetts sits on the Board of Directors at Acreage Holdings, one of the world’s largest cannabis investment firms. Unlike Sanders, however, Weld likely wouldn’t have the same concerns on cannabis as the next “big tobacco,” considering that Weld ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket back in 2016.  Weld is a long-time supporter of cannabis initiatives—he’s supported cannabis since 1992 and plans to drop convictions for those doing jail time for minor cannabis crimes. But, according to ABC News, his priority in his first 100 days in office is rebuilding relationships with U.S allies. 

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg has also promised to “legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions” on his campaign website. He’s even gone so far as to promise the decriminalization of drugs beyond cannabis, to eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug-related offenses, expunge past convictions, and apply these new laws retroactively. 

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren has gone from being “open” to cannabis legalization in 2016, to supporting federal legalization, which is listed as one of the promises under “Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform” on her campaign website. 

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang has also promised to legalize cannabis at the federal level if he’s elected to office. Listed directly on his website, Yang has pledged to expunge federal convictions of all cannabis-related use or possession offenses. 

Amy Klobuchar

Amy Klobuchar vouches to make efforts to reschedule cannabis a priority in her first 100 days in office. Specifically, she intends to start reviewing evaluations from scientists and medical professionals regarding reclassifying the legal status of cannabis.  But, overall, she has been less enthusiastic on the topic than the other candidates. 

Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard is a co-sponsor for legislation to decriminalize cannabis. She’s also introduced legislation that would remove cannabis from its classification of a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Overall, it appears that Gabbard would be more likely to allow states to make their own decisions around cannabis legalization than to legalize cannabis on the federal level.

Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh is a republican candidate from Illinois. Fortunately, cannabis-loving republicans may find a friend in Walsh; the radio host has repeatedly made statements supporting the legalization and the end of cannabis prohibition on both on radio and on social media. “It’s time,” Walsh writes on Twitter. “Legalize marijuana. If a 21yr old can drink whiskey, he should be able to smoke a joint.”

Politicians Least Likely to Legalize Cannabis

The two presidential candidates least likely to legalize cannabis on the federal level are Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg. 

Joe Biden has a long history of opposing cannabis legalization. Biden has been in the political arena since the early 1970’s—and when you’ve been in politics for as long as Biden, you’re sure to change your position on a few things. Unfortunately, when it comes to cannabis, his position hasn’t changed drastically. Late last year, Biden still questioned whether or not cannabis is a “gateway drug.” More recently, Biden has said he supports medical cannabis use, and that he would decriminalize cannabis possession. If Biden is elected to office, he’s indicated that he would continue to allow individual states to make their own decisions on cannabis laws. 

Michael Bloomberg served as the mayor of New York City, where he promoted strict law enforcement against cannabis use. He has made inflammatory comments about cannabis use, including the statement that legalization is “perhaps the stupidest thing anybody has ever done.” That statement was made in 2019. While Bloomberg says he would support the decriminalization of low-level cannabis possession, he remains firmly opposed to cannabis legalization.

Federal Cannabis Reform

Lawmakers have been teasing cannabis reform for some time, but no substantive legislation has passed. Photo: ©Kevin McGovern – stock.adobe.com

The Current State of Cannabis Reform

Presidential candidates and cannabis activists alike have much to look forward to during the 2020 election. But, it’s difficult to make concrete promises about the future without taking a hard look at the past. (Hindsight is 20/20, right?) Cannabis reform made several big gains in 2019; Illinois legalized recreational cannabis, several states supported decriminalization initiatives, and the American public continues to support reform. But, with big wins also come some losses and close-calls.

Here’s where cannabis reform left off after 2019.

Recreational Cannabis Is Legal in 11 States (Plus D.C.)

At the beginning of this month, Illinois became the 11th state (along with Washington D.C.) to sell legal cannabis for adult use. In other words, roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population currently lives in a state that offers legal recreational cannabis use.

The first two states to legalize recreational cannabis for adult use were Colorado and Washington State, in 2012. Since then, several states joined the club, including:

  • Alaska,
  • California,
  • Maine,
  • Massachusetts,
  • Michigan,
  • Nevada,
  • Oregon,
  • Vermont,
  • and now Illinois.

The District of Columbia also has legal recreational cannabis, however, it is technically not considered a state.

33 States Have Medical Marijuana

Perhaps even more impressive than the number of states with recreational cannabis laws is that medical cannabis is currently legal in 33 states. If you consider the population of the states that currently offer some form of legal cannabis—whether it be recreational or medical—a significant majority of the country now lives in a legal cannabis state. On top of these 33 states, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands also all have some form of legal cannabis program.

The American Public Favors Reform

In late October 2019, a poll was released by Gallup that further solidified the American public’s support for cannabis legalization. A full third of the population, or 66 percent, currently want cannabis to be legalized. This number has not changed from 2018, demonstrating a consistent level of support for pro-cannabis policies. In some states, this number is even higher. A poll conducted in New Mexico, for example, found that a full 75 percent of voters support legalizing cannabis. 

Even more interesting is that there are not any major differences in support for legal cannabis along gender, education, income, or regional lines. The factors that divide support for cannabis legalization are more according to political affiliation, age, religion, religion, and ideology.

Will the U.S. Legalize Cannabis in 2020

©darren415 – stock.adobe.com

Congress Keeps Turning Down Reform Opportunities

Despite the American public’s overwhelming support for cannabis reform, Congress continues to turn down opportunities to make meaningful legal reform a reality. Just last month, cannabis reform measures put forth by the House of Representatives—which would have allowed legal cannabis companies to more easily access crucial services like banking, and prevented the federal government from interfering with their business—was blocked by the Senate.

As a result, legal cannabis businesses will continue to be hampered by red tape, prevented from functioning properly, and forced to jump through hoops just to keep their doors open. Congress’ inability (or unwillingness) to pass meaningful cannabis reform measures reached a new low last month when a measure—designed to protect veterans who are discriminated against when applying for home loans because they work for the legal cannabis industry—was scrapped by House and Senate negotiators.

Cannabis Businesses Still Struggle for Legal Legitimacy

Cannabis businesses lack access to the same types of services that are afforded to other legal businesses, like banking, despite having the same level of legal legitimacy (at least within their respective states.) Without access to these basic business services, running a successful business—already a difficult endeavor—can seem nearly impossible. Without the ability to access normal banking services, for example, businesses are unable to do things like deduct expenses from their yearly tax payments. In the search for legitimacy, cannabis businesses have had to resort to lobbying tactics, spending millions of dollars to try and influence lawmakers to give them access to these services. 

Cannabis Businesses Paying Millions in Lobbying Dollars

In some cases, cannabis lobbying organizations are reportedly spending up to $60,000 a month in an effort to change local laws and gain access to the resources (like banking services) they need to run a functional business.

Lobbying efforts have been aimed at achieving everything from legalizing recreational cannabis for adult use, to adding autism to New York’s list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis access, and even giving animals access to medical cannabis. 

Some of the lobbying efforts waged by cannabis companies, however, have been less than wholesome. In one case, the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA)—a business association comprised of executives from major licensed medical cannabis producers—lobbied the office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to prevent the state from legalizing home cultivation of recreational cannabis. In the end, this lobbying effort succeeded. The implications of this rule are obvious: without the ability to grow one’s own cannabis at home, one must purchase their cannabis from legal cannabis providers. 

All-in-all, these lobbying efforts add up to millions of dollars spent by the cannabis industry.

Legal Cannabis Banking Waits on Sen. Crapo

The inability to access normal banking services is one of the greatest challenges that legal cannabis businesses face today. While there has been no shortage of effort (or lobbying dollars) to carry out banking reform, one major hurdle still stands in the way: the opposition of Senate Banking Committee Chairman, Sen. Mike Crapo. 

Recently, Crapo stated his firm opposition to a piece of legislation known as The SAFE Banking Act, which would give legal cannabis businesses the banking access they need to operate like any other legal business. Currently, banks are apprehensive to work with cannabis businesses due to the threat of federal sanctions, since cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Crapo has reportedly suggested that he supports these sorts of limitations placed on companies that offer cannabis products containing more than two percent THC. 

Given Sen. Crapo’s position as a Senate Banking Committee Chairman, his support is essential to the success of passing legislation like The SAFE Banking Act, so that cannabis businesses can finally access national banks.

The Likelihood of U.S. Cannabis Legalization 2020

All in all, the likelihood of U.S. cannabis legalization in 2020 is exceedingly slim. While a presidential election is slated to take place in November, even if a cannabis-friendly Democratic candidate is elected, they won’t take office until January of 2021. 

While Mr. Trump is well known for unexpectedly changing his support for certain policies on a moment’s notice, cannabis has never been an important issue for the president. While presidents and presidential candidates are known for making big promises, and occasionally shifting their positions on certain policies leading up to an election, following through on such a drastic policy change before the election would not offer President Trump any strategic advantages. Furthermore, the closest President Trump has gotten to even making a promise about cannabis legalization are claims that he will allow individual states to make their own decisions around cannabis. 

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January 15, 2020
Written by Rob Hoffman

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