“Just say no.”
“I didn’t inhale.”
“I inhaled frequently — that was the point.”
Long verboten in presidential politics, marijuana legalization has inched steadily into the mainstream.
Some marijuana activists are convinced that a pro-legalization stance could have pushed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton over the top four years ago, and recent polling has shown Hispanic voters in particular embrace the movement.
Just don’t try telling that to President Trump or Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden.
But Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, Mr. Biden’s running mate, readily admits to smoking marijuana in her college days and still endorses its use.
“It gives a lot of people joy,” she said in a February 2019 radio interview when the Democratic presidential contenders were tripping over one another to see how pro-pot they could be.
Indeed, Ms. Harris represents a major change from first lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” anti-drug campaign and even Bill Clinton’s famous admission that he had experimented with marijuana but “didn’t inhale.”
Barack Obama, who has written extensively on his past drug use, said in 2006 that he “inhaled frequently — that was the point.”
Mr. Biden hasn’t exactly caught up with his running mate.
After championing tough-on-crime policies for decades, the former vice president now says no one should go to jail simply for smoking marijuana. But he also says further study is needed before the U.S. moves to full legalization.
To the consternation of some liberals, the 2020 Democratic Party platform did not call for legalization. Instead, the party embraced decriminalization at the federal level.
On the other side, one of Mr. Trump’s first acts in office was to pick as his attorney general Jeff Sessions, who wrote a memo in 2018 that sought to roll back Mr. Obama’s policy of noninterference in state marijuana laws.
Mr. Trump suggested recently that marijuana ballot referendums in 2018 helped sink Scott Walker’s reelection bid as governor of the all-important battleground state of Wisconsin.
This year, the issue has the potential to gain steam in the presidential race as an element of the racial justice movement.
Black people in the U.S. are arrested on marijuana possession charges at nearly four times the rate of White people, yet the rate of marijuana consumption among both ethnicities is roughly the same, according to a 2020 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Marijuana legalization also has the potential to move the needle with Hispanic voters.
“Based on our January poll, Latinx voters clearly support the legalization of marijuana,” said Junelle Cavero Harnal, a political adviser at H Code, a digital media and advertising firm that tracks and studies Hispanic attitudes and behavior in the U.S.
Polls show that 55% of Hispanic Trump supporters back legalization but an overwhelming 74% of Hispanic Biden supporters are in favor of legalization.
“Those looking to influence behavior and opinion as it pertains to this issue will have to target, reach and mobilize Latinx voters through the digital channels they use daily to access information online,” said Ms. Cavero Harnal, a veteran of Sen. Bernard Sanders’ presidential campaign, as well as the Clinton and Obama campaigns.
Mr. Trump generally is following his “law and order” campaign theme when it comes to marijuana policy. It wasn’t always that way.
In 1990, well before he dove into politics, Mr. Trump called for legalizing drugs to take “profit” away from “drug czars.”
“We’re losing badly the war on drugs,” said Mr. Trump, as quoted by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
On the 2016 campaign trail, he suggested an openness to medical marijuana and said broader issues of legalization could be left up to states.
But Mr. Sessions’ reversal of a noninterference policy all but dashed the hopes of pro-pot advocates.
“Trump is not exactly very clear on his position,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who has worked in the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations. “There are plenty of things he could have done to liberalize marijuana policies that he did not do. The Sessions memo is still in effect. Bill Barr’s feelings on marijuana are probably very similar to Jeff Sessions’.”
In April 2018, Sen. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, announced that he was lifting some holds on Justice Department nominees after Mr. Trump committed to him that Mr. Sessions’ move wouldn’t affect Colorado’s legal pot industry.
On other occasions, Mr. Trump expressed wariness or deferred action.
“The next time you run, please don’t put marijuana on the ballot at the same time you’re running,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Walker. “You brought out like a million people that nobody ever knew were coming out.”
Legalization measures are set to be on November ballots in a handful of states, including in the key battleground of Arizona and in Montana, home to a competitive Senate race.
Marijuana is legal for adult recreational use in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Medical marijuana is legal in more than 30 states.
Mr. Trump didn’t answer when a White House reporter asked about Ms. Harris’ pro-pot stance. He instead pivoted to taxes, military funding, fracking, health care and the Supreme Court.
The president was then asked whether pro-marijuana voters should pick him because of Ms. Harris’ history of locking up people for marijuana-related offenses as California’s attorney general.
Mr. Trump again took a pass.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist with close ties to the White House, said it probably behooves Mr. Trump to simply avoid the subject whenever possible.
“Remember the people that Trump needs to recapture to win this election: They are seniors, they are independents and they are suburbanites,” he said.
He pointed out that Mr. Biden isn’t necessarily doing as well among Black and Hispanic voters as Mrs. Clinton was in 2016.
“The problem here is that what you think you might get over there you could lose over here,” Mr. O’Connell said.
Joseph R. Biden
Mr. Biden has campaigned on a criminal justice reform platform that envisions decriminalizing marijuana, expunging convictions, legalizing the drug for medical use and leaving the legalization of recreational marijuana up to the states.
“No one should be going to jail for a drug crime. Period. Nobody,” Mr. Biden said in May. “Particularly marijuana, which makes no sense for people to go to jail.”
Mr. Biden would move marijuana off the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s Schedule I list of banned substances, where it is grouped with heroin and LSD, so “researchers can study its positive and negative impacts,” his campaign said.
“They’re trying to find out whether or not there is any impact on the use of marijuana — not in leading you to other drugs, but does it affect long-term development of the brain,” Mr. Biden said in an interview on the “The Breakfast Club,” a radio show. “And we should wait [until] the studies are done. I think science matters.”
Host Charlamagne tha God said there are “decades and decades [of] studies from actual weed smokers, though.”
“Yeah, I do. I know a lot of weed smokers,” Mr. Biden said with a laugh.
Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, predicted that others in the Biden orbit would continue to shape his views on the subject.
“I certainly expect that Kamala Harris as his vice president and most likely several members of a Biden Cabinet would all be there to sort of help in his evolution on cannabis,” he said.
Ms. Harris in July 2019 introduced the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would decriminalize marijuana and expunge convictions.
The bill also would make federal funding available for legitimate cannabis-related businesses. Many still have to maintain cash-based enterprises, and banks and financial institutions are hesitant to jump into the fray.
Mr. Hawkins said marijuana policy frequently ends up fused with talk about criminal justice reform.
“There’s this broader civil rights frame to it,” he said. “I think Biden’s evolution is not going to be necessarily driven by how we see this as a criminal justice issue but more a fundamental civil rights issue in terms of how people of color are treated.”
Other activists say Mr. Biden’s approach is insufficient.
“Rescheduling of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act would continue to make the federal government the primary dictators of cannabis policy and would do little, if anything, to address its criminal status under federal law,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Though Ms. Harris is to the left of Mr. Biden and many others in the Democratic Party on the subject, she faced accusations during her presidential primary campaign that she was too tough on marijuana-related crimes.
“She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii charged in a Democratic presidential debate.
Ms. Harris replied that she was proud of her record and that she helped create counseling and reentry programs for former offenders.
“It is why and because I know that [the] criminal justice system is so broken that I am an advocate for what we need to do to not only decriminalize but legalize marijuana in the United States,” she said.