Cannabis is a hot topic going into this year’s presidential elections. We know that voters are engaged with the cannabis debate as a growing political issue in Western democracies, both on an economic and moral level.
On economics the debate is clear: legalisation of cannabis for consumption and sale would create jobs, taxable income and new secondary industry growth. As a moral issue, many voters believe that an individual’s right to have sole control of what goes into their body is paramount and should not be an area in which the government should control.
Even if there are changes in voter attitude towards cannabis in the United States, the way to a change in Federal law is through the new President. So, what do frontrunners Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton think about changes in the law?
Mr Trump has been acknowledged by the media as a bit of a flip-flopper. Most recently he declared that he was “allowed to change” his mind on taxation and spending. Politics is an ever changing chess board and Trump’s desire to unlock political policy chains could be deemed acceptable. On cannabis – and wider drug use – however, his opinions have twisted to a near 360 degrees.
Back in 1990(!), when support for the drug war was considerably higher than today, Trump took the radical position that the drug war had failed. This was an incredible assertion in a fundamentally different political era. In 1990, around 30,000 federal incarcerations took place a year for drug offences; in 2009 federal imprisonment for drug offences increased by 212% since 1990. In fact, overall imprisonment on drug offences nearly doubled from 2009 compared to 1990.
Because of this massive increase in incarcerations, you would expect Mr Trump’s position to have become more committed to drug liberalisation, considering that 1990 was tame compared to today’s incarceration rates. However, Trump has peddled backwards on his position, and now supports cannabis as a medical remedy only.
“I’d say [regulating marijuana] is bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it’s bad and I feel strongly about that. [Moderator: “What about the states’ right aspect of it?”] If they vote for it, they vote for it… But I think, medical marijuana, 100%.” C-SPAN, June 23, 2015
This is quite a change in position for Donald Trump. It indicates that his party does not back his earlier position on radical drug changes, and as such he has succumbed to the political pressure of a liberal position on drugs during the Republican primaries. This does not bode particularly well for cannabis campaigners as he is likely to be non-committal to pushing changes through the federal government without a radical change of opinion in his party.
On the plus side however, Trump has indicated that he is democratic and would certainly step out of the way should states vote for changes within their own borders. And with California set to vote on legalisation of cannabis this year, it could be concluded that under a Trump presidency there could still be radical changes in state law for cannabis use.
Unfortunately for cannabis campaigning Democrats, Hilary Clinton is not the best politician for radical changes. Clinton has neglected to specifically confirm either way whether she is for or against cannabis legalisation. The frontrunner in the Democrat primaries has indicated that she wants to see more research done on cannabis as a medical device and on the effects of recreational use.
This could be conceived in two ways, firstly that Clinton, like Trump, is treading carefully to score as many political points as possible. Her decision to not back one side of this debate means that she can pool voters to her without providing much detail on her stance. However, Clinton like Trump is also known to change her mind and she has a challenge in persuading voters that she has an opinion on cannabis which is not based on political research or voter polling results.
“I really believe it’s important that states like Colorado lead the way, so that we can learn what works and what doesn’t work. And I would certainly not want the federal government to interfere with the legal decision made by the people of Colorado, and enforced by your elected officials, as to how you should be conducting this business that you have approved. So, no, I want to give you the space and I want other states to learn from you, what works and what doesn’t work.” MSNBC, October 14, 2015
Clinton is not far from Donald Trump on her position on cannabis. It’s quite clear that both candidates view this debate as fractious and have opted to be vague on their positions. This grants them strength in attracting voters without alienating those who think differently.
From a campaigner’s position, it’s not particularly clear which candidate is most likely to spearhead liberal drug laws to the front of the queue. Both Republican and Democrat primaries have seen far more conservative views throughout the campaign, what’s left are two candidates who are neither for nor against cannabis legalisation. In short, if you want to see a change in federal cannabis laws, go with your gut.