President Trump: America’s Great Marijuana Savior. It’s an idea that may sound counterintuitive to many Americans who falsely believe that Democrats and their allies on the left have been the sole champions of legalizing cannabis. While the left side of the aisle may traditionally have been more likely to support legalization, no party has ever had a monopoly on the issue.
And now we have a president—one known for his unpredictability—who recently signaled a willingness to support reform. President Trump, whether premeditated or not, is putting himself in a position to make history by becoming the U.S. president who reversed a nearly century-long policy of marijuana prohibition and, in so doing, reap the political spoils of taking on the mantle of “the legalization president.”
This idea is not so far-fetched. Trump has every reason politically to become an unlikely champion of marijuana legalization. Given the overwhelming public support of the issue, legalizing marijuana will certainly improve his chances of reelection in 2020. If he does, the Democrats will have nobody to blame but themselves.
Talk of President Trump’s potential support picked up steam in early June when he stated that he would “probably” support the STATES Act, a new bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that would exempt legal state-licensed cannabis businesses from the Controlled Substances Act, eliminating the fear of federal prosecution, as well as banking and tax issues that currently plague the industry.
But this isn’t new ground for the current president. During the 2016 campaign, in an interview with KUSA-TV in Colorado, Donald Trump was asked if his administration would crack down on cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state laws. His response: “I wouldn’t do that, no … I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”
Earlier in the campaign, back in October 2015, Trump discussed the issue at a campaign rally, announcing: “The marijuana thing is such a big thing. I think medical should happen—right? Don’t we agree? I think so. … I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state.”
Granted, the president’s position on this issue has not been consistent, and nobody should mistake him for a champion of legalization. His embrace of legalization would be a reversal spurred by purely political motives. At the same time he was touting respect for states’ rights and support for medical cannabis, he expressed disdain for full legalization. In June 2016, when asked about legalization at a CPAC conference, he responded: “I say it’s bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think [recreational marijuana] it’s bad. And I feel strongly about that.”
But what about states’ rights? “If they vote for it, they vote for it. But they’ve got a lot of problems going on right now, in Colorado. Some big problems. But I think medical marijuana, 100 percent.
Republican Support Not New; Democratic Support Not Universal
Many may believe that Trump is an outlier when it comes to Republican support for marijuana reform, but historically this has never been a traditional left-wing issue. Until recently, the only elected officials willing to champion cannabis-reform legislation came from the fringes of both parties. The States’ Rights to Medical Marijuana Act, the only federal legislation introduced throughout the 2000s that would have protected state medical marijuana laws, was co-sponsored every year by far-left Democrat Barney Frank and far-right Republican Ron Paul. Neither could muster more than token support from other members of their parties in Congress
While support for legalization has historically been somewhat stronger among Democratic Party politicians than their GOP counterparts, Democrats have been slow to embrace reform even while their constituents have been much further ahead. For example, while the STATES Act has the support of President Trump, it lacks support from Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat.
Some of the past’s most ardent drug warriors in Congress came from the Democratic delegation. The harsh mandatory minimum sentences enacted in the 1980s that largely led to today’s mass-incarceration problem were championed by then Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, someone generally revered as a progressive hero.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, has long been one of the strongest supporters of the War on Drugs, having campaigned vigorously against every proposed marijuana-reform proposal on the California ballot, including Prop 215 in 1996 that legalized medical marijuana and Prop 64 in 2016 that ended prohibition altogether in the state. Only this year—once it had become politically untenable for a California Democrat to support prohibition, and she faced a progressive challenger in a contentious primary race—did Sen. Feinstein come around on cannabis reform
Even President Obama, largely celebrated by the cannabis industry for having not cracked down on Colorado and Washington after they became the first states to end marijuana prohibition, never had the political courage to call for real reform at the federal level, despite majority support for legalization among the general public and overwhelming support amongst registered Democrats. While the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House from 2008 to 2010, not a single major marijuana-reform legislation was approved. Not until 2014, under a GOP-controlled House during Obama’s second term, was a budget rider passed that prevents the justice department from cracking down on state-legal medical marijuana businesses, an amendment largely championed by Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
In 2010, two years before Colorado and Washington voted to legalize, 54% of Democrats already supported full legalization, according to Gallup, but you couldn’t find a single national Democratic party leader willing to champion legislative efforts to end prohibition. Despite the writing being on the wall for nearly a decade, Democrats have missed out on chances to own this issue and the political benefits that come along with it—in particular, the 70% of millennials who support legalization, according to the Pew Research Center
It Didn’t Have To Be This Way