Dem presidential candidates get on the legalization bandwagon

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If you want a seat on the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential bandwagon, you better be in favor of legalizing marijuana at the federal level.

That, anyway, is the obvious take-away from the reintroduction of New Jersey Senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker’s sweeping Marijuana Justice Act in the U.S. Senate. The bill, which among other things would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and automatically expunge past federal convictions for pot possession and use, was cosponsored by four other Democratic senators running for president and one other expected to join the race.

The cosponsors are Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, California Senator Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Colorado Senator Michael Bennett, who many expect to jump into the race, also cosponsored the bill.

(Other cosponsors include Oregon Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, who aren’t running for president.)

“The War on Drugs has not been a war on drugs,” Booker said in a press release, “it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately people of color and low-income individuals.”

“But it’s not enough to simply decriminalize marijuana,” he went on. “We must also repair the damage caused, by reinvesting in those communities that have been most harmed by the War on Drugs. And we must expunge the records of those who have served their time. The end we seek is not just legalization. It’s justice.”

Other sponsors of the bill issued similar statements.

In addition to expunging possession and use convictions, Booker’s bill sets up an investment fund to funnel federal dollars to communities hit hardest by the drug war, most (but not all) of which are predominantly black or Hispanic. It also would withhold some federal funding from states that disproportionately enforce marijuana criminalization laws against members of minority groups and low-income individuals.

At least one other announced Democratic presidential candidate, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, as well as former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is widely expected to announce a presidential run, are on record favoring marijuana legalization at the federal level. O’Rourke has been particularly outspoken on the issue.

Notably missing from the list of Democratic senators running for president cosponsoring the bill was Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who nonetheless has announced she supports marijuana legalization.

Last year she signed on as a cosponsor to the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, originally sponsored by Colorado Senator Cory Gardner and Warren, which would have exempted states that have legalized cannabis from the anti-marijuana provisions of the Controlled Substances Act, while leaving those provisions in place.

Both Booker’s and Gardner’s bills died in the Senate last year without ever reaching the floor. Gardner has yet to reintroduce the STATES Act. If and when he does, it will be interesting to see if Warren joins him as a cosponsor again, since she has signed onto Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act.

While the STATES Act and Marijuana Justice Act aren’t contradictory, Booker’s bill goes much further, by actually removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.

Given the number of Democratic presidential candidates who are actively running for the party’s nomination on marijuana legalization, it seems likely that legalization will be a major issue in the 2020 campaign — and that the Democrats intend to use it to drive voter turnout among the young and among black and Hispanic voters.

If Democrats are planning to use marijuana legalization as a wedge issue in 2020, candidates like Warren might be reluctant to sign on to more modest reform measures like the STATES Act. On the other hand, candidates like Klobuchar, who are trying to position themselves as more centrist, might be more comfortable with the STATES Act, which has a better chance of attracting Republican support in the Senate.

The latest candidate to announce their Democratic nomination is none other than former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who made his candidacy public on March 4.

Although Gov. Hick has signed a slew of marijuana reform bills over the years — in the course of implementing Colorado voters’ 2012 decision to legalize pot — he has the distinction at the moment of being the only declared Democratic presidential candidate who hasn’t explicitly endorsed ending marijuana prohibition at the federal level.

Whether he’ll continue with that stance now that he’s an active candidate remains to be seen. His kick-off event is today, and chances are the press will pop the pot question.