Why cannabis won’t matter this November, but the election will be critical for the future of cannabis

Late last year, headlines across the cannabis-sphere pondered whether or not Donald Trump might pull a last-minute “cannabis surprise” in the 2020 election. The theory went that Trump, who would do anything to win in a close race, could pivot to a legalization position. It would give younger undecided voters a reason to choose him over Biden. Every pundit and podcaster with a Twitter feed had a field day pushing the theory.

“At the same time, Trump is a man who will do anything to get re-elected,” wrote Bruce Barcott of Leafly last September. “If he senses a couple percentage points in a legalization pivot, he just might jump on it. Such a move won’t sway any Democrats. But it might give younger undecideds a reason to vote against Biden.”

Of course, like most punditry limited to the Twitteratti echo chamber, the Trump cannabis pivot lacked real-world credibility. It deemed the electorate to be lacking in any agency. 

After all, Trump is the man who appointed Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as his first attorney general — the same Jeff Sessions who repealed the “Cole memo” protecting state-level cannabis businesses and who was once quoted as saying “I thought those guys [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK until I learned they smoked pot.”

And let’s not forget Trump’s secret committee against weed. In 2018 Buzzfeed News discovered that the Trump Administration culled together a committee of federal agencies from across the government known as the Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee whose sole directive was to counter positive messaging about state-level cannabis programs.

To say the Trump administration is anti-cannabis is an understatement. 

Could the president pivot to a pro-cannabis stance? Absolutely. There’s no doubt that some people may even believe him — 30 people went to the hospital for swallowing bleach this week, so anything is possible. But Donald Trump’s bonafides as an anti-cannabis crusader have been set in stone. 

Which brings us to this past week and the recent 420 holiday. The cannabis celebrations were a bit muted this year as the coronavirus kept everyone indoors, leaving some people with, perhaps, too much time on their hands to think. This time it was the elite set who writes for the Washington Post and the like, posturing on the political future of Joe Biden.

“But the data still suggest that Joe Biden is missing a big political opportunity to run on legalization in a presidential campaign in which Democrats face an uphill battle in the electoral college,” Michael Tesler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine wrote in the Washington Post. “Although Biden’s position on marijuana policy is more lenient than Trump’s, he remains opposed to full legalization in the United States.”

Tesler went so far as to say that Biden could win back voters who went third-party in 2016, those infamous Gary Johnson and Jill Stein voters who many still blame for shifting the election.

But, as Tesler admits, although Biden is nowhere near as anti-cannabis as Trump, his platform resides in the wait-and-see camp. Biden has called for more studies to be done on the subject while arguing that marijuana should be decriminalized, and records should be expunged.

More importantly, though, like the Twitteratti at the other end of this horseshoe, Tesler and those making similar arguments ignore voters' agency. A packed Democratic field this winter presented voters with plenty of pro-cannabis candidates — Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders — but the people, for better or worse, chose Biden.

And let’s be honest, if the overtures that Biden has already made haven’t broken through, including lowering the age of Medicare eligibility to 60 and forgiving all student debt, plus an endorsement from Bernie Sanders, will a pivot to cannabis legalization work? Once again, these pundits forget that voters have agency.

Despite the pleas from the punditry and the insulated reverb of the Twitter-sphere, the pro-cannabis movement needs to face the reality that marijuana will not be a factor in the 2020 election. Even with the coronavirus spreading through the country America still has a myriad of problems that need to be addressed in the short-term — healthcare, prison reform, poverty, the overdose crisis, and more — and the idea of “going back to normal” feels, in some ways like one reserved for people of privilege. 

But that being said, there are also plenty of vulnerable people who will continue to suffer greatly should the country not return to a sense of “normal,” which is why the electorate has decided that the 2020 election will be a referendum on Donald Trump. 

However, and this is critical, just because cannabis reform won’t factor into the 2020 election doesn’t mean the election won’t have serious implications for the future of legalized marijuana. Much to the contrary, this may be one of the most important elections the cannabis industry has ever faced, as depressing as that may sound.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already killed several prominent, state-level efforts to legalize cannabis across the country, including a much-hyped bill in New York. And even though the industry has managed to be deemed an “essential business” in the face of a slew of government-imposed stay-at-home orders, small pot shops are struggling as the economy faces a recession.

While the next election may not mean much in regards to cannabis, the next four years will be critical for the movement. And it all depends on what the country looks like coming out of November. The 2020 election will determine how we move forward with marijuana from here on out, which is why the pro-legalization movement should look at this election holistically. 

Although, like most pundits or people with a platform, I could be completely wrong. Only time will tell.

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