The American people have made it clear that they don’t need presidential support to advance cannabis legalization, with fifteen states approving recreational pot since 2012. But it sure would help.
Although President Donald Trump has voiced small bursts of support for states’ rights on the issue in the past, his administration hasn’t shown much love for the plant. President-elect Joe Biden’s record isn’t much more promising — he was a United States senator during the formative years of the War on Drugs, and as recently as last year said that cannabis was a gateway drug — but he and teammate Kamala Harris have pledged to decriminalize cannabis once in office, and some cannabis advocates hope that their support will lead to even more advancements on the federal legalization front in Congress.
To learn more about where the pot industry stands on a Biden presidency, we caught up with National Cannabis Industry Association spokesman Morgan Fox.
Westword: Did you get a sense on which way the cannabis industry’s preference was leaning on election night?
Morgan Fox: I think the industry was largely leaning toward a Biden presidency. Trump had four years to instruct his party to move forward with cannabis policy reform, but it never happened. While he voiced vague support for states’ rights, some members of his administration were outright hostile to the possibility of reform, and actively targeted the industry. Neither Trump nor the RNC took an official public position on the issue this year. The Biden campaign, while not having an ideal position, was definitely taking a positive stand and increasingly prioritizing the issue in its public statements, particularly as it relates to social and criminal-justice issues.
Between Trump’s and Biden’s, which administration was the NCIA more hopeful for? How about in regard to Biden compared to other earlier Democratic candidates?
NCIA was more hopeful for a Biden administration for the reasons stated above. Given Biden’s support for decriminalization and the fact that Vice President-elect Harris is the lead Senate sponsor of the MORE Act, I think we can expect, at the very least, that he would not veto any descheduling legislation that is approved in Congress. It is also very likely that members of his administration and his agency appointees will be more cannabis-friendly than the current administration. Given the increased priority of the issue in the incoming administration, we may even see positive executive action, like increased veterans’ access, lowered barriers to research, and better cannabis policies related to immigration.
Leading up to the primaries, candidates seemed to be jumping over each other to have the most progressive cannabis policy platform, and at the time, Biden’s was nowhere near the best. Candidates like Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang were strongly in favor of legalization, but then again, so was Senator Harris, so her position in the next administration will likely have a beneficial impact on Biden.
Has Biden’s view of cannabis evolved much since he began campaigning earlier this year?
He was calling cannabis a gateway drug late last year, and now supports decriminalization and expungement, so I think he has definitely shown an ability to learn and grow on this issue that I expect will continue after he becomes president.
How would nationwide decriminalization (but not legalization), as Biden/Harris have suggested, affect legal cannabis industries in Colorado?
While decriminalization is a step in the right direction, it would not address many of the most pressing issues for the industry, including banking access, the 280E tax code or interstate commerce.
What about states where cannabis isn’t legal, such as Alabama?
Federal decriminalization would only affect federal enforcement, and would not change state laws. While this would likely result in nominally fewer arrests and fewer federal incentives for state and local law enforcement to prioritize marijuana enforcement, the vast majority of arrests take place under state laws.
Given the results on election night in regard to statewide legalization measures, how bullish are you on nationwide legalization within the next five years? How do you see Biden’s administration playing a role in whichever way that goes?
Considering the House is scheduled for the first-ever floor vote on a descheduling bill with the MORE Act, and the fact that we can expect more and more states to continue passing adult-use initiatives and legislation in the next few years, I’d say the prospects look good. I hate to make exact predictions, though, and anything can happen in the coming years. We still have a lot of work to do convincing lawmakers to end prohibition, and also have to work with them on how to do that in a way that helps repair the harms caused by the War on Drugs to marginalized communities while also allowing the industry to reach its full potential. The Biden administration, and particularly Vice President Harris, could have a big impact by encouraging Congress to prioritize this issue. Harris could also end up being a tie-breaker vote in the apparently unlikely event that Democrats are able to win both of Georgia’s runoff Senate elections in January.
How do you view our incoming Congress in relation to legal cannabis?
We’ve always worked across party lines in Congress and have great relationships with a lot of Republicans, but there is traditionally less support for cannabis policy reform in the GOP, and its leadership in the Senate has not been eager to allow hearings or votes. That being said, I think we’ve got strong support in the House for the next session, and we expect to see progress in the Senate on at least more incremental legislation. However, I think conservatives should look at the adult-use and medical initiative victories in three deeply conservative states this year as a sign that they should increase their support and be more conducive to holding hearings and votes in legislative bodies.
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