Primary season is in full swing, with Democratic candidates crisscrossing Iowa and shaking every hand they can find across New Hampshire.  New to this election is the prominence that cannabis legalization and related criminal reform have taken in the major candidates’ platforms.  As the country has swung to the left on cannabis legalization, most Democratic politicians have pushed liberalization even further. 

The candidates have taken varying stances on how exactly to handle cannabis legalization at the federal level, but their positions largely fall into three categories: marijuana use legalization, criminal justice reform, and business regulations to promote cannabis business.  Most Democratic candidates are on the record supporting all three categories, but each prioritizes some type of reforms over others. 

Regardless of their intentions and even if they win the election, a Democratic president will be limited in what reforms he or she can enact.  The President will have control over the executive branch and how resources are allocated for cannabis-related enforcement and research, but wide-spread reform is limited by the laws already on the books.  Changes will require buy-in from Congress.

Unless there is a significant change in election sentiment over the next year, it is likely the Republican party will retain the Senate even if the Democrats retain the House.  Therefore, any legislation will be limited to what Republicans can be persuaded to support.  For example, improved business regulations are much more likely to be successful than completely de-scheduling cannabis.  A Republican Senate will also not give a Democratic President an easy legislative win – the battles will be hard fought.

Here is an overview of the current cannabis positions of the major candidates:

Joe Biden

Biden stands out from the other candidates in the crowded field with his history of supporting the war on drugs and hesitancy to support cannabis legalization.  He is on the record with decades of votes in favor of strict drug enforcement, including harsher sentencing and prohibiting funding for federal cannabis research.

Biden does not reference cannabis in his 2020 platform.  As recently as 2014, he stated on the record that he did not support legalization, though he favored reducing enforcement for simple possession.  

While Biden is likely to publicly express a softened stance on cannabis given the public’s support of legalization and would likely not veto laws that came to his desk, he should not be seen as a strong supporter of the cannabis industry or related legal reform.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders has highlighted criminal justice reform as one of his platform issues.  The first bullet in the criminal justice section of his website states that he wants to “End, once and for all, the destructive ‘war on drugs,’ including legalizing marijuana.”  He also included his goal of ending the war on drugs in his campaign announcement video.

In the Senate, Sanders has also been a long-time proponent for cannabis reform, and recently co-sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act and the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, both of which would de-schedule cannabis.

Although Sanders has not typically been a viewed as a pro-business legislator, he supported multiple versions of bills that would legalize industrial hemp and pushed for bills that would protect banks that take on cannabis-related business from federal prosecution.  A Sanders administration would be friendly across the board to cannabis reform.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren does not single out cannabis on her campaign website, though it contains a brief mention of “rewriting our laws to decriminalize marijuana” in a broad Equal Justice Under Law issue section.  Historically, she has not been a vocal advocate for cannabis.

However, in recent years, she has been one of the leading supporters of cannabis legalization.  Warren co-sponsored the STATES Act with Sen. Gardner of Colorado, which would immunize state compliant cannabis activities from federal prosecution.  The STATES Act would also address banking access problems for cannabis businesses.  Warren has also supported other bills designed to support the cannabis business community, including the SAFE Banking Act and Marijuana Business Access to Banking Act.  She has also co-sponsored or signed on to several other bills that would advance cannabis legalization or criminal justice reform. 

Warren’s support, though recent, has been extensive, and she is likely to be a strong supporter of business friendly cannabis laws in addition to her criminal justice reform-related advocacy.  Given her silence in the past, there is, however, a risk that she is adopting her cannabis-friendly position out of political expedience and will abandon it if elected.

Cory Booker

Cannabis reform was part of Cory Booker’s launch platform and was included in his first media appearance.  Although he has sponsored or signed on to almost every major piece of cannabis reform legislation, Booker has focused his cannabis-related advocacy on reforming the criminal justice system.  In his launch announcement, Booker highlighted the racial disparity in cannabis enforcement. 

In the Senate, Booker was the chief sponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act, which combined de-scheduling cannabis with policies focused on ending disparate treatment under the criminal justice system.  As one of the most progressive bills, the Act will not pass a Republican-controlled Senate, but has positioned Booker as a leader in cannabis-related criminal justice reform in the Senate.  

Booker has also co-sponsored business friendly legislation aimed at opening up banking to cannabis companies.  He did not sponsor the latest version of the STATES Act, citing the Act’s lack of impact on reforming the criminal justice system.

If elected, Booker will push for cannabis reform quickly.  However, he is likely to advocate primarily for criminal justice reform, which is less likely to pass Congress.  Given his position on the STATES Act, it is uncertain whether he would endorse cannabis legislation that does not include criminal justice reform. 

Kamala Harris

Like Warren, Harris has become a recent convert to cannabis legalization, tying it to her campaign focus on criminal justice reform. She has signed on to Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act and co-sponsored the SAFE Banking Act. Beyond that, she does not have a history of legislatively supporting legalization, though she has made supportive comments in recent years.
Like Booker, Harris has focused on reforming the criminal justice system to end disparate treatment. Harris, however, has to combat her history of being a fierce prosecutor who boasted of increased drug offense convict rates.


John Kosmidis is a partner in the Washington, D.C. office where he specializes in internal investigations and government enforcement actions.