clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Marijuana legalization is winning the 2020 Democratic primaries

From Cory Booker to Bernie Sanders to Elizabeth Warren, presidential candidates are rallying around legalizing pot.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) talk at a news conference over prescription drug prices.
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) talk at a news conference over prescription drug prices.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

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.

Part of the shift is explained by changes on the ground. In 2012, Colorado and Washington state became the first two states to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. And since then, eight other states and Washington, DC, have legalized pot (although Vermont and DC have not legalized sales). As legalization keeps spreading, candidates are forced to confront the reality that it might be here to stay.

But much of the shift is also explained as Democratic candidates finally matching the views of their constituents. For years now, a majority of Democrats — indeed, a majority in the US — has backed legalization. In 2020, Democrats’ presidential nominee seems very likely to reflect that.

Polls find majority support for marijuana legalization

Public opinion surveys have consistently found strong support for marijuana legalization. Last year, Gallup’s survey found that 66 percent of the country supports it. The Pew Research Center’s survey found support a bit lower at 62 percent, but still a solid majority.

Support was particularly strong among Democrats. According to Gallup, 75 percent of Democrats back legalization. According to Pew, 69 percent do.

And Democratic support has been high for a long time. Based on Gallup’s polls, a majority of Democrats have supported legalization since as early as 2009, Barack Obama’s first year as president.

A chart showing support for marijuana legalization by political party. Gallup

Yet 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.

For more on marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.