• Sarah Gersten

Legalization Tests Democratic Candidates' Commitment to Criminal Justice Reform

The inclusion or exclusion of any candidate should not be taken as an endorsement or opposition to any candidate, but rather an overview of just some of the candidates we feel have raised novel or unique points in regards to cannabis criminal justice reform. Stay tuned for more coverage of presidential candidates as the election progresses!

With 18 candidates still technically in the running for the Democratic nomination, it’s hard to get a grasp on where each one stands on the issues. This is especially true when it comes to policy proposals for cannabis—an issue that has become a litmus test for candidates’ commitment to progressive policies. This year marks the first time presidential candidates have made legalization a key piece of criminal justice reform, racial justice, and income inequality. As longtime legalization supporter Senator Cory Booker put it when announcing the aptly named Marijuana Justice Act earlier this year: “the end we seek is not just legalization, it's justice.”

Nearly every democratic candidate has called for full descheduling as a path to legalization, and many have signed on as co-sponsors to Booker’s bill. The majority of candidates are also calling for critical reparative justice measures including expunging past marijuana convictions, and reinvesting in communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war to create a more equitable industry. Some candidates, however, are beginning to differentiate themselves on cannabis policy by acknowledging the importance of legalization – particularly in the context of restorative justice – as a key issue among democratic voters.

Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders, introduced the most detailed legalization plan to date. At a high level, Sanders’ plan reiterates the major components of the Marijuana Justice Act such as expungement and community reinvestment. But the intricacies of Sanders’ plan show that he clearly has someone on staff that understands the complexities of making those lofty goals a reality, and is applying the lessons learned from the continued challenges legal states are facing. For one, Sanders directly addresses some of the issues currently facing state-led expungement plans by creating funding for automatic expungement procedures through groups like Code for America.

Along with putting forth by far the largest proposed amount for grant funding for reinvestment in communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs, Sanders’ legalization plan also includes several criminal justice reform measures. Those provisions include the creation of an independent clemency board, using marijuana tax dollars to fund reentry programs, and eliminating barriers to public benefits for people who have interacted with the criminal justice system. By including such provisions directly in his legalization proposal, rather than a distinct criminal justice plan, Sanders highlights the intersection between prohibition and mass incarceration.

Sanders would also direct agencies to remove all references to marijuana that limit people’s ability to access government services, and would eliminate the consequences of a marijuana record related to immigration. One other major difference between the Vermont senator and other Dems is that Sanders calls for descheduling via an administrative process, rather than through legislation, a measure that would leave congressional prohibitionists out of the legalization process. So far only Senator Warren has supported this executive approach to legalization.

Other notable proposals:

The only other candidate who has put forth a detailed marijuana legalization plan distinct from a broader criminal justice plan is former Congressman, Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke’s plan largely mirrors Sanders’ in terms of justice reform, including calls for an independent clemency board, expungements, and community reinvestment towards reentry programs. Most notably, the plan calls for monthly “Drug War Justice” grants for formerly incarcerated cannabis offenders and also specifically calls for removing cannabis-related charges as grounds for deportation or denial of citizenship.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s criminal justice plan goes farther on drug policy reform than any other candidate by saying he wants to entirely eliminate incarceration for drug possession. Also in the midst of the federal judiciary’s current legitimacy crisis he calls on nominating judges from under-represented backgrounds “including women, people of color, public defenders, and civil rights attorneys”.

Despite her history as a prosecutor, Senator Kamala Harris’s criminal justice reform plan includes the key pieces of legalization from the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, of which she is a sponsor, but notably calls for the federal government to invest money in states to significantly reduce the incarceration of women convicted of non-violent offenses noting the dramatic rise in women in incarceration.

Tech exec Andrew Yang says he doesn’t “love marijuana” but it’s criminalization “seems stupid and racist.” Agreed! (Well, that last part anyway.)


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