Sometimes it seems like November 2016 is a long way off, as the presidential race grinds on and on like a never-ending clown show. But this presidential race has big implications for the pace of the ongoing cannabis legalization revolution. Two recent developments on both sides of the aisle are particularly significant.
The first is the revelation that is Bernie Sanders. Last week, he became the first major presidential candidate—ever—to call for the federal government to remove cannabis from its list of dangerous drugs. Since 1972, federal law has stated that cannabis is dangerous and has "no currently accepted medical use." This is a joke, of course, and has laid bare the obvious prohibitionist bias in federal cannabis policy for all to see.
There have been many attempts to "reschedule" cannabis over the years. The first petition was filed the same year the law was passed and remained in court for 22 years. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has subsequently denied other petitions, but according to the DEA it has asked the Food and Drug Administration to study whether cannabis should be downgraded on the "dangerousness" scale.
But Sanders has gone a step further than calling for rescheduling. He called for removal of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act's list of dangerous drugs altogether, where it would join alcohol and tobacco. This would be a titanic achievement. It would allow states to legalize cannabis without fear of interference from the federal government, and it would allow cannabis businesses to use banking services and conduct business without having to transport large volumes of cash or worry about federal criminal charges.
But this isn't just the dream of a "kooky socialist," as the media often likes to pretend. According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in March, in the three key swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, support for cannabis legalization is more popular than any 2016 presidential candidate. That is an admittedly low bar, but the numbers show huge leaps for cannabis. More than 80 percent of adults in these states support medical marijuana, and bare majorities support legalizing small amounts of cannabis for personal use.
Even the Republican presidential candidates seem to realize that thumping their chest about the War on Drugs will no longer help them win an election. In their debate in—of all places—Boulder, Colorado last week, almost all of the Republican candidates said they would not pursue enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act against cannabis businesses in states where it has been legalized.
This is enormously significant because the nascent cannabis market and businesses in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon are hanging by a legal thread. These businesses currently are allowed to operate under a Department of Justice memorandum that tells U.S. Attorneys not to interfere with cannabis businesses so long as they are adhering to the basic requirements set out in the memo, which includes things like not selling across state lines.
Any new Republican president could instantly reverse this policy and direct federal prosecutors to begin enforcing the law again. This would be like shooting fish in a barrel now that these businesses have storefronts and state corporate registrations. All of the billions invested in the cannabis industry would instantly be lost and the black market would again flourish in places like Oregon. But with a majority of Americans nationwide now supporting full legalization, this would be an unpopular policy. And Republicans candidates are making the possibility seem remote. Of course, no politician ever does the opposite of what is promised during the election, right?