Marijuana Legalization Becoming Consensus Issue Among 2020 Democratic Candidates

Democratic candidates for President are quickly voicing support for marijuana legalization.

Vox’s German Lopez notes that marijuana legalization seems to be becoming a consensus issue among the Democratic candidates for President:

The 2020 presidential campaigns are very much in their infancy, but one clear winner already is marijuana legalization, which has received wide support from the Democratic candidates.

Last week, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who’s running for president, reintroduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which he first introduced in 2017. The bill would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and leverage federal funds to encourage states to legalize pot.

“The War on Drugs has not been a war on drugs, it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately people of color and low-income individuals,” Booker said in a statement. “The Marijuana Justice Act seeks to reverse decades of this unfair, unjust, and failed policy by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances and making it legal at the federal level.”

It’s not just Booker, though. Several Democratic candidates have signed on as co-sponsors for the Marijuana Justice Act: Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) hasn’t signed on, but she said she supports legalizing marijuana.

Even the candidates (or potential candidates) who don’t support legalization have spoken favorably of marijuana policy reform. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who’s widely expected to announce a presidential bid, said he opposes federal legalization, but backs decriminalization, medical marijuana, and states’ right to legalize.

Unless Democrats get a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate or win over Republicans, chances are the next president in 2021 is not going to legalize marijuana nationwide. But the candidates’ support for legalization marks a huge shift from previous presidential bids.

In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton, as the Democratic candidate, only voiced support for letting states legalize, not federal legalization — a similar position to then-candidate Donald Trump’s stance. Before that, candidates from both parties opposed legalization.


Obama opposed legalizing marijuana, even as his administration let states legalize it without a federal crackdown. Based on the polling, Obama was in conflict with the majority of his fellow Democrats.

The 2020 primaries already show this is changing, with the most prominent Democratic candidates who have announced their campaigns already rallying around legalization. It seems the Democratic Party has caught up with its voters.

Increasingly, the polling suggests that legalization may be the majority opinion among Republicans too. Gallup has found that to be the case, with 53 percent of Republicans in 2018 supporting legalization. But Pew has not, finding only 45 support among Republicans.

But Trump’s administration has so far taken an aggressive stance against legal marijuana, rescinding Obama-era memos that shielded cannabis businesses legalized by states from a federal crackdown.

Based on where the candidates are today, the next Democratic administration is going to take a very different approach to marijuana.

All of this comes in the face of recent developments that show the extent to which marijuana legalization is becoming more and more of a mainstream position across the political and demographic spectrum. Most recently, this was shown in polls from Gallup, Pew Research Center, and Quinnipiac which all showed support for legalization continues to grow. The Gallup poll was perhaps the most remarkable of the three in that it showed support for legalization across all of the major demographic groups, including political affiliation. In that poll, the strongest support was unsurprisingly from Democrats (75% favor legalization) and Independents (71% support legalization) but even self-identified Republicans, which had been among the final demographic groups where majority support did not exist, showing 54% of that group supported legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Additionally, support for legalization among Americans 55 and older, another group that has been late to the legalization movement, was up to 59%.

These polls were the latest milestone in a trend that began at the beginning of the decade, has continued unimpeded for the past seven years, and which shows no signs of stopping or reversing itself any time soon. In 2011, for example, polling showed that support legalization had reached the 50% level, while even larger numbers supported legalization supported legalization for medical purposes or decriminalization. By 2013, the number of Americans supporting legalization had passed the 50% mark. That mark reached 55% in 2014 and 58% in 2015.  By this time last year, polling showed that support for legalization had reached 64% and a poll taken five months ago showed support at 63%. So, we’ve basically reached the point where two-thirds of the American public supports complete legalization and, according to the most recent polling, upwards of 90% of Americans support legalization of marijuana at least for medical purposes.

As these poll numbers have increased, the movement toward liberalization of marijuana laws and outright legalization has moved steadily forward. It began to gain steam, of course, in 2010 when Colorado and Washington both passed citizen referenda legalizing cannabis. Four years later similar measures passed in Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia. Most recently marijuana was legalized in 2016 in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine via citizen referenda and voters in a number of other states approved legalization for medicinal purposes. Even though we’re only four months in 2018 has seen several advances in this area. For example, January was the biggest month yet for the legalization movement given the fact that the most populated state in the nation, California, officially legalized marijuana based on the aforementioned 2016 referendum. Additionally, Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislature instead of a voter referendum. New Jersey stands likely to be the second state where that happens thanks to the election of a Democratic Governor who supports legalization a Democratic state legislature that spent eight years trying to liberalize drug laws in the Garden State only to be thwarted by the veto of former Governor Chris Christie. Governor Murphy has already taken steps to use his regulatory powers to expand access to the state’s medical marijuana program. Additionally, earlier this summer, in anticipation of the passage of a bill that would legalize marijuana by the state legislature, the New Jersey Attorney General announced that marijuana prosecutions would be put on hold. Across the border in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo said after being re-elected to a third term that he would push the New York legislature, now firmly in the control of Democrats in both chambers, to pass a legalization bill this year. Finally, on Election Day itself, voters in Michigan approved legalization for recreational use and voters in Utah approved legalization for medical purposes. Unfortunately, though, a measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use failed in North Dakota. On the whole, though, the legalization movement continues to advance.

As I’ve said before, all of this mirrors the manner in which we’ve seen another recent change in social attitudes have an impact on the law:

[T]here are unmistakable similarities between the tend that we’ve seen in polling on this issue and the trend that we saw in the polling on the issue of marriage equality in the years before the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.In both cases, the change seems to be rooted in changes in society and culture that have recognized that previous attitudes were based on incomplete information or biases that had no basis in fact. In some sense, the change in public opinion on marijuana legalization has been even more radical than the changes we saw with respect to marriage equality in that it has occurred over a much shorter period of time. The noticeable difference, of course, is that this increase in support for legalization has not led to the same rapid changes in the law that we saw with the marriage equality issue. To a large degree, though, this is because most of the progress with regard to same-sex marriage was made via the Court system rather than the legislative process or citizen referendums. For many reasons, the court system is not well suited to deal with the marijuana legalization, though, and the efforts that have been made have been largely unsuccessful. For example, last year a group of Plaintiffs in New York attempted to get a Federal Court to declare the scheduling of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration invalid, but that effort was dismissed. Instead, the progress on marijuana legalization has had to take the slower route of using the legislative and political process to change the law. Those routes generally operate at a  much slower pace than the court system does, and often be blocked by a determined minority of voters. Despite this slower pace, though, the trend toward more liberal marijuana laws and eventually nationwide legalization, seems to be fairly clear. At this point, it’s not a matter of if, but when.

Given these trends, and the fact that support for legalization is close to being nearly universally accepted among both Democratic and Independent voters, it’s not surprising that Democratic candidates have chosen to get out in front on this issue. While Congressional action on legalization is unlikely for the time being, the fact that a candidate for President supports legalization is significant both because of the impact that this will have on the political consensus and because of the things that a President can do on this issue even without Congressional authorization. Specifically, of course, there is the issue of Justice Department policy regarding enforcement of the law in states where marijuana has been legalized. Under the Obama Administration, the position adopted by the Justice Department after states began legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use was that Federal authorities would not aggressively enforce Federal law in those states other than to address issues involving interstate drug trafficking. After President Trump was elected, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed those guidelines and essentially left it to individual United States Attorneys to decide how to prioritize such cases. While there has been no indication of a Federal crackdown in the states where legalization has taken place, this puts residents in jeopardy of being prosecuted by Federal authorities even though they are engaging in activity that is entirely legal under state law. Presumably, a future Democratic President would return to the Obama era policy and, potentially, they could follow through on the calls made by many experts to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule One drugs.

One can only hope that we’ll see the same sort of thing from Republicans in the future.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, 2020 Election, Uncategorized, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. James Pearce says:

    Wow, according to Vox, Senate Democrats really want to legalize marijuana. I suppose that’s why they’re all running for president then.

    Also, this:

    no indication of a Federal crackdown in the states where legalization has taken place

    is mostly due to the efforts of a Republican senator not running for president.

  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I remember a bunch of us sitting in the dormitory stairwell, as freshmen, playing guitars and complaining about how pot should be legal. To us, then, it only made sense. But I really never thought that I’d see the day.
    Republicans still don’t want us to.
    I’m certainly not a single issue voter…but this issue alone is enough to sway me.

  3. mattbernius says:

    Having talked with a few people involved in central, in the trenches, positions within the Clinton campaign, there is a general sense that this is one of the issues that could have made a difference in all those key states (both in terms of picking up the user vote and the votes of farmers interested in a new revenue stream).

    It was also an issue that she apparently would absolutely not budge on at all (towards full, federal legalization) no matter how much her policy people advocated for it. Its an interesting example of a really generational issue.

    (note: to be clear, they don’t believe her position on pot specifically caused her to lose… rather it was that if she adopted a full legalization position, it might have swung enough small pockets of voters to make a difference)

  4. Neil J Hudelson says:


    That’s been my read as well. In Indiana and Ohio there is a decent number of farmers and veterans (especially combat vets) who are thirsty for a change to this policy. I imagine that’s true for Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Probably could’ve moved at least one of those states into the Dem column.

  5. Slugger says:

    Are there specific reasons why people oppose legalization other than that stuff is something those people like? Colorado has had it for seven years now, and I am not aware of any big problems.
    Full disclosure: I have smoked once in the last twenty years; too strong for me.

  6. Neil J Hudelson says:


    I can’t point to any broad study that uncovers the reason for resistance, but my conversations here deep in Trump country reveal that generally opposition isn’t because of *those* people (unless you mean youth), but rather just plain ignorance. Recent objections include:

    -“There’s just no health benefits for it!” Some scoffed when I started talked about treating PTSD, but others honestly listened with open ears. Many remembered (after nudging) that its been used to treat glaucoma, but they thought there were other just as efficacious treatments (true). Some of the other medical benefits–like controlling nausea during chemo–just wasn’t a strong enough reason to move them.

    -“It’s a gateway drug!” This seems to be the strongest objection, and one that’s the most difficult to overcome. Eighty odd years of the media portraying it as a very dangerous drug is just a very hard phenomena to combat, but I think the polls show that this notion is ending, just slowly.

    -“It’s dangerous for your health!” See “gateway drug” objection.

    And then among lawmakers, the most common objection is “I’ll absolutely consider this, but I’d like the Feds to decriminalize first.” I think this is a very understandable objection from a Legislator’s standpoint, even if I may vote differently were I to be an elected official.

    So, no, in this case I don’t think the objections have much to do with racism.


  7. James Pearce says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:

    my conversations here deep in Trump country reveal that generally opposition isn’t because of *those* people

    Can you say that again, but louder?

  8. Teve says:

    Some of the other medical benefits–like controlling nausea during chemo–just wasn’t a strong enough reason to move them.

    it’s hard for me to imagine the kind of people who can’t sympathize with cancer patients trying to keep food down, but maybe this is just one of those things where Republicans have zero empathy until they are directly related to a human being with this problem.

  9. Neil J Hudelson says:

    @James Pearce:

    Sure! The problem is, when–from my perspective deep inside Trump country (as opposed to the light rail in a diverse metropolitan area)–the issue very much is “those people,” you are almost guaranteed to respond with some next level Derp.

    But yes, when discussing specifically the issue of marijuana legalization, racism isn’t the primary objection.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:
    The original policy had a lot to do with racism, that has changed – too many white people smoking weed. It’s the standard approach of conservatives: be afraid of anything new and extra afraid if the new thing involves black people, women or hippies. See also: jazz, rock and roll, hip hop, wine, long hair, abortion, gay marriage. . .

    The first impulse is always repression. If there’s money to be made off repression then that’s a bonus. When the economic incentives change ‘conservatives’ suddenly decide repression is wrong. No apology of course, no restitution for families broken apart or lives shattered, and of course never an admission that liberals were right all along.

  11. Neil J Hudelson says:

    @Teve: Meh. I wouldnt’ say lack of sympathy. There are very, very few people in America who haven’t had close contact with cancer. Rather, its because so many people have had close contact with cancer that they understand there is a wide bevy of medications available, including anti-nausea medications.

    And that’s really the issue with legalization for medical reasons instead of legalization because its the right thing to do. For almost every medical issue pot can help address, there are other well-developed medications available.

    I think the one medical issue that really will gain traction is pain management. Across the country, but especially in rural areas, the deadly results of relying on opium for pain management are well understood.

  12. Neil J Hudelson says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:

    To put it another way, people who claim racism doesn’t exist and people who see racism in everything are both wrong.

  13. @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Republicans still don’t want us to.

    Not according to the polls. As I note, the most recent Gallup poll shows that self-identified Republicans support legalization. Republican office holders will catch up.

  14. James Pearce says:

    @Neil J Hudelson: Shoulda known you’d have to throw some derp my way too…

    @Michael Reynolds:

    No apology of course, no restitution for families broken apart or lives shattered, and of course never an admission that liberals were right all along.

    Oh BS. A single state, Vermont, legalized cannabis through the legislature. Every other state had to do so through voter referendum, with no help from your Democrats and, sometimes, despite their opposition. California’s prisons are full of people liberal drug warriors put there.

    Democrats don’t want to legalize weed. They just want to run on it.

  15. Teve says:

    @Neil J Hudelson: I think weed could seriously help people deal with both opioids and alcoholism. But I have also personally known cancer survivors who say nothing could get them to eat except weed. I also live in the deep South where plenty of people who use weed for various reasons will absolutely not talk about it for legal reasons.

  16. Matt says:

    @James Pearce: Some quick google searches shows a variety of democratic members and groups helped push through legalization in all states that have legalized marijuana. Maybe you could provide some actual examples?

    Don’t fall for the belief that the GOP supports it in Texas. They made damned sure that the medical marijuana bill was chock full of legal traps in an attempt to make it useless.

  17. James Pearce says:


    Maybe you could provide some actual examples?

    My state’s former governor, Hickenlooper, wasn’t a big fan. Not sure you can call SAFER, NORML, or the SSDP “Democratic groups.” Which members are you thinking of?

    About 20 years ago, I faxed my representatives about my desire to see cannabis legalized. Wayne Allard (member him?) wrote back as a hard no. Mark Udall (member him?) wrote back saying he’d support legalization if someone else proposed legislation.

    The Republican position has changed somewhat, thanks to the influence of libertarians, but the Dem position is pretty much the same: Support the idea of legalization, but take no action.


    I think weed could seriously help people deal with both opioids and alcoholism.

    I think weed could seriously help people enjoy their lives, like wine or charcuterie or crossfit.

  18. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    @James Pearce: If you don’t want derp, that’s easy–just don’t tell us about the imaginary conversations that you have with the light rail riders who live in your head as though those conversations were 1) real and 2) evidentiary. It’s easier than you think and you don’t have to give up being a pedantic bore, either.

  19. Gustopher says:


    I think weed could seriously help people deal with both opioids and alcoholism

    It also helps with Thursdays. Other days too.

  20. wr says:

    @James Pearce: “About 20 years ago, I faxed my representatives about my desire to see cannabis legalized. Wayne Allard (member him?) wrote back as a hard no. Mark Udall (member him?) wrote back saying he’d support legalization if someone else proposed legislation.”

    So you’re saying that the response of one Democratic senator 20 years ago defines all Democrats today. That’s certainly Pearce-like.

  21. James Pearce says:

    @The abyss that is the soul of cracker: Had a terrible train ride today. Some lines went down –or something– and the ride was delayed. I ended up taking an Uber for the last bit of my commute, missed my morning walk, and was late to work anyway. It was pretty real.

    I don’t think you need to chuff on me for being an irredeemable introvert. Everyone’s got problems.

    @wr: It should Pearcian. Or Pearcesque. Something less Teutonic than “Pearce-like.”

    At any rate, I don’t base my assessment on the Udall letter. I base it on the fact that almost all of the legalization efforts have come from voter initiatives operating outside of partisan politics. You want to give Democrats credit for the Cole memo? Fine. They deserve it. But if they want to really impress me, don’t just sponsor some cute little law they can talk about at fundraisers. Pass one.

  22. An Interested Party says:

    But if they want to really impress me…

    Thankfully for them, they don’t have to reach that lofty height to succeed…

  23. Bill says:

    There isn’t much talk about one issue- Marijuana use and driving.

    I’m just mentioning this but it is something that should be in the forefront of any legalization discussion.

    The FAA will surely continue to prohibit its use by flight crew members, Should drivers of automobiles be any different?

    In 2011, a plane ran out of fuel and crashed in Illinois. One of the pilots was high on MJ at the time. Was that why these fools kept on flying an aircraft short of fuel.

    John Bialek, 80, and his wife, Ilomae Bialek, 75 were killed by these fools. They were parishioners of the church I attend and where my wife works. Dear Wife spoke to Ilomae Bialek the day of the crash.

    Maybe we shouldn’t be in a rush to legalize something before more lives are destroyed by people who smoke MJ.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    Maybe we shouldn’t be in a rush to legalize something before more lives are destroyed by people who smoke MJ.

    Using that logic, alcohol should be banned as well, and we know that turned out when it was tried…

  25. Bill says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Using that logic, alcohol should be banned as well, and we know that turned out when it was tried…

    Dismissing something that has seen little or no study is plain stupid. MJ use is illegal at present. We shouldn’t be rushing to legalize something we don’t know the full impact that cause of action will have.

  26. DrDaveT says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:

    “It’s a gateway drug!” This seems to be the strongest objection

    Perversely, the horrific opioid epidemic may be the cure for that particular nonsense objection. Nobody needs gateway drugs anymore; they can go straight to the hard stuff, with help from their friendly family doctor.

  27. de stijl says:


    they can go straight to the hard stuff, with help from their friendly family doctor.

    And that doctor was financially induced to prescribe opioids by Purdue Pharma and competitors.

    There’s a lot of idiots obsessed with complicated conspiracy theories about Big Pharma that are utterly false. That does not mean that Big Pharma is innocent. They are not. Evidence about Purdue’s actions and goals clearly puts that to rest. They are guilty as sin.

    I want opioid shills investigated and what comes will come behind the full force of the law. But it is not a reason to decline to vaccinate your child against preventable and harmful childhood illnesses and viruses.

    The downside to the response to the opioid crisis is that uninformed or the hopelessly hopeful will be more accepting of anti-vax idiocy.

    Dismantling a criminal enterprise needs to not undermine beneficial basic science in the minds of the population.

    As to Purdue Pharma, et al. – just RICO those f*ckers to death. Like, literally to death. They caused so much pain and heartache it is incalculable – solely in the service of profit.

    You would think that Executive 1 would address Executive 2 with, “Hey! What if we’re the baddies, here. We’re behaving in a explicitly evil fashion. Just sayin’.”

  28. de stijl says:

    @Doug Mataconis

    Republicans support legalization. Republican office holders will catch up.

    You keep hoping that your preferred party is relevant, and not just a scrum of reactionary dickish simpletons.

    Your hope is naive, but beautiful.

    I, too, hope that Rs regain their balance, integrity, and patriotism. I doubt it will happen, but I hope for it, anyway.

  29. Gustopher says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Republicans support legalization. Republican office holders will catch up.

    Don’t they also support closing the gun show loophole?

  30. Gustopher says:

    @Bill: Marijuana has been legalized in a number of states, as well as Canada. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been an increase in traffic accidents. The data is still early, but we would be looking at 2021 before any attempt at national legalization, so we should have a few more years of data.

    Compared to distracted driving, sleepy driving, drunk driving, medicated driving and driving while really old, etc., this appears to be a non-issue.

    It’s something that should be investigated in greater depth when the time comes, but barring some surprising studies, it’s just not a problem.

  31. de stijl says:


    I have no dog in this fight because weed is not my intoxicant of choice.

    However, I know this from personal experience – high people are way more pleasant and amenable than drunk people. I have zero issue with people getting high. And given the number of folks who do, they shouldn’t be criminalized for blazing – that’d be stupid.

    Not driving around while high mind you, just like people who drink shouldn’t drive while impaired. Seems like a fair deal to me.

    Now to a dog I do have a fight in – legalize ‘shrooms!

  32. Teve says:

    @de stijl: I seem to have heard that California and Oregon were looking into that.

  33. James Pearce says:


    Marijuana use and driving.

    This one’s tricky, because anyone who’s smoked in the last 30 days is going to test positive, but marijuana is only psycho-active for about 4 hours, less if you have some tolerance. A true pothead may not be impaired at all. You can’t treat it like alcohol or other drugs because it’s not like alcohol or other drugs.


    Dismissing something that has seen little or no study is plain stupid.

    People have been using marijuana for thousands of years. It works by mimicking neurotransmitters already in our brain. Just because the US government banned it in the 70s doesn’t mean it hasn’t been “studied” or that the jury is still out on its effects.

    At no point during the experiment with prohibition did people stop using marijuana. To the contrary, underground scientists have basically domesticated the plant to the point where they can engineer its effects. This strain has high THC. That strain has high CBD.

    Also we’re not “rushing” here. It’s common knowledge that the drug war has largely been a failure. No one in Colorado has bought weed from a Mexican cartel in half a decade. This has been a slow, hard slog and legalization is long overdue.

  34. de stijl says:


    I seem to have heard that California and Oregon were looking into that.

    Makes sense. That’s where ‘shrooms come from mostly. The grown in Mother Nature ones anyway. Godspeed, California and Oregon! You’d think that Washington would want in on that too eventually.

  35. Matt says:

    @Bill: There is no test to do postmortem to know for sure if someone was high at that exact moment and how high they were. All they know is he used pot at some point in the last month.

    As an aviation enthusiast I could post hundreds of similar crashes involving sober people or in the case of the Gimli glider MULTIPLE sober people getting it wrong. Running low on fuel happens far more often than it should. Sometimes it’s just something as simple as selecting the wrong tank (probably the most common cause of fuel starvation).

    Some of the kids that went to my school had a dad who would get drunk and fly his cessna around at the local airport with them. Did it all the time and god damned he was really bad at safety checks…

    People are already driving high all around you…

    @James Pearce:
    I haven’t forgotten about you Pierce I just don’t have time to properly build out and cite a response yet. I’ll try to get around to it in the next couple days as I’m rather busy right now. Gotta take dat cash when you can 😛

    I can say I’m not a fan of your governor. Nor was I ever a fan of the law and order wing of the Democratic party. Too busy stomping people under their boots to notice they were still being called weak on crime by the GOP… Bill Clinton was in that category for me as he was no liberal in office.

  36. An Interested Party says:

    Dismissing something that has seen little or no study is plain stupid. MJ use is illegal at present. We shouldn’t be rushing to legalize something we don’t know the full impact that cause of action will have.

    Are you unaware of what pot does to a person? Do we not already know how dangerous it is for someone who smokes pot to immediately get behind the wheel? What is really plain stupid is to try to paint pot as some kind of horribly evil thing, something worse than say, legal drugs like cigarettes or alcohol…