Biden vs. Trump: High Stakes for Cannabis Policy?

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We here at Budding Trends strive not to be partisan, but that doesn’t mean we hide our gaze from political realities affecting the cannabis industry.  Today we turn that focus on the American presidential election coming this November. Will the results matter to the cannabis industry? Maybe less than you think when it comes to the occupancy of the Oval Office versus control of Congress.

Cannabis Under a Second Biden Term

To some extent, it should be easy to foresee what a second Biden term would look like to the cannabis industry because it would be a continuation of the existing administration. But there have been a number of developments during the second half of the first Biden term that make it a little trickier to predict what could occur over the course of an additional four years. For example, the Biden administration has (1) issued pardons for federal convictions of simple marijuana possession; (2) taken significant steps towards rescheduling marijuana within the Controlled Substances Act; and (3) recently encouraged DEA to reschedule marijuana “as quickly as possible,” including in a personal request from the vice president. All of this is on top of the president’s reference to marijuana rescheduling in the most recent State of the Union.

Against those seemingly progressive moves, we do have to consider President Biden’s less progressive positions on cannabis issues in the past.  As we wrote in 2020, during his long tenure in the Senate, he championed several pieces of “tough on crime” legislation. For example, in 1986, Biden introduced the Comprehensive Narcotics Control Act, which sought to establish a cabinet-level office to coordinate the federal government’s drug enforcement policies, and in 1993, Biden sponsored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a pre-cursor to the 1994 Crime Bill. With this track record, one might have reasonably concluded that Biden would not spend political capital on cannabis reform.

Cannabis Under a Second Trump Presidency

Let’s be honest: This one is tougher to pin down. Former President Trump has provided few clues as to whether he has some sort of North Star when it comes to cannabis issues. We do, however, have the benefit of his first term and statements made in the meantime to help us assess how the cannabis industry may fare under a second Trump administration.

Here is what we wrote about a potential second Trump term in the runup to the 2020 election:

The answer is far from clear given Trump and his administration’s drug policy decisions over the course of the president’s first term. These decisions range, on the one hand, from signing into law a bill federally legalizing hemp after decades of prohibition to, on the other hand, appointing a fierce opponent of cannabis legalization as U.S. attorney general. These decisions paint a potentially conflicting picture of the president, who once said all drugs should be legal, and his ongoing policy toward cannabis.

The answer to determining what a second-term Trump presidency would mean for cannabis legalization requires separating the president’s comments from his administration’s actions. The president has made conflicting comments on marijuana legalization throughout his presidency, but his administration has offered a steadier picture of where a second-term Trump presidency would lead. The short answer appears to be more of the same.

One of the Trump administration’s most significant cannabis developments to occur during his first term was signing the 2018 Farm Bill. This move legalized hemp creating a massive market for a crop that had been prohibited for more than 80 years as a federally controlled substance. Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture has further supported hemp by allocating significant resources into implementing the reform.

Although many industry advocates were troubled by then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rescind the Cole Memorandum — an Obama-era policy of non-federal interference with states who have legalized marijuana — the suspected effect of the rescission has not been realized. In fact, current Attorney General William Barr has said that he is not interested in disturbing “settled expectations” as it concerns the Cole Memorandum era policy, even though it is no longer in effect. Seeing as how there have not been any large-scale federal raids of state-level legal cannabis businesses, it seems reasonable to assume this policy of federal inaction toward state legalization will continue.

On the campaign trail, rather than directly addressing cannabis policy, Trump portrayed himself as the criminal justice reform candidate. He has focused his message around the First Step Act, which ushered in federal sentencing reforms for certain drug offenses.

Trump’s own comments, in public and private, offer a mixed bag toward his views on cannabis legalization. For instance, in 2018, when asked if he supported a bipartisan bill to allow states to set their own marijuana policies, the president said, “I really do.” But this contrasts with comments the president made at an August 2020 campaign rally urging Republicans not to place marijuana legalization initiatives on state ballots out of concern that it would increase Democratic turnout in elections.

During his first term, Trump has shown himself to be not so much a cannabis ally as much as a cannabis ambivalent. The president likely doesn’t think cannabis should be illegal, but he also seems willing to use the issue as a cudgel to rally his base. A second Trump term would likely mean more of the same, a lukewarm and at times inconsistent policy toward cannabis.

“Cannabis ambivalent.” I forget which one of our Budding Trends contributors used that phrase, but I think it’s a fair estimation of where Trump is on the issue today.

Conclusion

We wrote the following almost four years ago and the trend line has continued in the time since:

The general population appears to support some measure of cannabis reform. Polling of American adults shows majority support for the legalization of cannabis for either medical or adult use. Legalization receives majority support in both parties – nearly four in five Democrats, and more than half of Republicans, support legalization. This bipartisan support, in an increasingly polarized political landscape, should provide some assurances to the Democratic Party and Joe Biden that cannabis reform will have the support of the populace.

Even though we were specifically talking about the prospects of a Biden presidency at the time, we believe the same spirit is as true today as ever regardless of the occupant of the White House. We opened this piece by noting that we stridently seek to avoid taking partisan positions, but we’re going to call a spade a spade. The American people support cannabis liberalization. Neither candidate Trump nor candidate Biden seem to personally view the issue as top of mind, but nor will either apparently stand in the way of liberalization.

So, in the end, maybe all of this discussion was for naught. Maybe the results will be the same regardless of who calls 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home on January 21, 2025. Maybe what really matters is who controls Congress, who controls the statehouses, and who controls the judicial branches that interpret the law.

Regardless, we promise to keep you up to date over the next seven-plus months here at Budding Trends. Thanks for stopping by.

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Biden vs. Trump: High Stakes for Cannabis Policy?

 

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