In 2020, there’s no shortage of contentious debates leading up to Election Day. Aside from the five legalization initiative votes happening this November (see sidebar, "5 States Voting on Cannabis Legalization this November"), several races have caught cannabis activists’ attention.
Cannabis Business Times spoke with representatives from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) about major Election Day races taking place Nov. 3.
Don Murphy, director of federal policies at MPP and a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates in the 1990s and early 2000s, told C-SPAN that when he was in office, he “was voting to lock up everybody.” That was until he was approached by a veteran who was using cannabis with his doctor’s approval. The veteran asked Murphy if he thought he was a criminal.
“I said, ‘No,’” Murphy says as he retells the story to CBT. “He said, ‘Well, you’re an elected official. Unless you do something to change the law, you really do think I'm a criminal.’ So, I hold incumbents responsible for patients who get caught up in the system because they haven’t done anything to fix it.”
Murphy illustrates that actions on cannabis speak louder than words. “It's no longer good enough to say, ‘Yes, I support that,’” he says. “Really, how would I know? I don't see your name on the sponsor line.”
As of mid-September, whether Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (R) would sign the bill that passed the Vermont General Assembly to tax and regulate cannabis sales remained in question.
Matt Simon, MPP’s New England political director, puts the situation simply: “If he vetoes it, he’s public enemy No. 1 for the cannabis industry, I would say. If not, he takes a weapon off the table from his general election opponent.”
That opponent, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D), is a vocally progressive candidate. “David Zuckerman has been a pro-cannabis politician since the first time he ran for [state] House when he was a student at the University of Vermont back in the ’90s,” Simon says. “He didn't win the first time, but he has been in the [Vermont] House and the Senate for a long time before lieutenant governor. He was the sponsor of Vermont's medical cannabis bill that passed back in 2004.”
Before COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S., Scott said he wanted a roadside saliva test for cannabis, but Simon says Scott has not spoken on the issue more recently. Simon adds that the S.54 bill to come across Scott’s desk would allow saliva testing if passed, but officers would have to perform the test through a warrant, not on the roadside.
If Scott signs the bill, Simon says, “Who is governor will matter on the decisions that get made about licensing fees, taxes, any number of issues—roadway safety—all of the above will be up for consideration. I think there are some differences between how Gov. Scott would handle those issues and how a Gov. Zuckerman might handle those issues.”
New Hampshire Governorship
Despite his anti-legalization stance, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) signed several pro-cannabis bills in 2017, his first year in office, Simon says.
One of those bills added post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain to the state’s qualifying conditions list. Sununu also signed a decriminalization bill that made possession of up to three quarters of an ounce a civil violation on first offense. And in 2019, according to the Associated Press, Sununu signed a bill to establish a process for people who were arrested for those smaller possession offenses, prior to the bill’s passage, to annul their criminal records.
“New Hampshire took a big leap forward on cannabis policy out of the dark ages in Sununu’s first year,” Simon says. “Since then, he's been able to go around and say that he’s the most progressive governor in New Hampshire history on cannabis—and he’s technically 100% correct. That being said, he has been very vocally opposed to legalization, and that doesn't really fly in New Hampshire.”
State Sen. Dan Feltes (D) is challenging Sununu for his seat. In September, Feltes adopted the cannabis legalization plan of his primary race opponent, Andru Volinsky, Simon says. The plan outlines permission for home grows and for the sale of cannabis at liquor stores, according to WMUR-9.
“He's got a tall task ahead of him to beat a very popular New Hampshire governor,” Simon says.
U.S. SENATE RACES
Colorado Senate Seat
In Colorado, incumbent Cory Gardner (R) will face off against former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D). Neither candidate supported MPP’s ballot initiative in 2012, Murphy says. But more recently, Gardner has pushed for passage of the SAFE Banking Act, and Hickenlooper has shifted from what Murphy calls a “mixed record” on cannabis to pushing for federal decriminalization and states' permission to legalize.
“It remains to be seen if first term incumbent Cory Gardner will be able to deliver the SAFE Banking Act to the president’s desk, but whether or not he is successful, you can’t say he hasn’t tried,” Murphy says.
Minnesota Senate Seat
In Minnesota, both incumbent Sen. Tina Smith (D) and candidate Jason Lewis (R), a former U.S. Representative for the state’s 2nd Congressional District, have outlined pro-cannabis stances.
In July, Smith introduced the Substance Regulation and Safety Act to decriminalize and deschedule cannabis and have the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulate it similarly to tobacco. She also signed onto the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act as a cosponsor in September of this year.
Lewis has spoken about wanting to protect state cannabis programs from federal interference, according to Patch.com. In 2017, he co-sponsored the Compassionate Access Act, which would have rescheduled cannabis and allowed for research into medical uses.
Like Ed Markey (D), the incumbent who defeated Joe Kennedy III (D) in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate Democratic primary, Murphy says Smith has recently become more vocal on cannabis. “Here's a state that is blowing up over criminal justice reform, police reform—indirectly, marijuana policy reform—that all should be part of it,” Murphy says of Minnesota. “I think if you do police reform without drug policy reform, that's not really scratching the itch.”
South Carolina Senate Seat
Murphy points out that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) is undergoing a tough competition against Jaime Harrison (D) to hold on for a fourth term. “If he were to lose, it would likely pad the Democrat’s majority in the Senate, as there are other Republicans in tighter races that would have fallen first,” Murphy says.
Graham’s challenger supports cannabis legalization. In an interview with CNBC, Harrison, who is Black, noted the issue of racial disparities in possession arrests. “Across the country, we are finding that states are legalizing marijuana and medical marijuana, and it’s just time for South Carolina to lead on this issue,” Harrison told the news outlet.
Graham signed onto the CARERS Act in 2016 and held a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on medical marijuana that same year. Since then, he has not signed back onto newer versions of the act, including since he became Senate Judiciary chair in 2019.
“He's been sort of good and bad on this,” Murphy says. “I think, ideologically, he's there, but he just doesn't even know how to make this work with his conservative base; his law and order bona fides are in question, and his cops are all a big 'no.' Well, here you are in the race of your life, and maybe if you were on the right side of this, it wouldn't be a problem.”
U.S. HOUSE RACES
Florida District 1 House Seat
In Florida’s 1st Congressional District, cannabis proponent Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) seeks reelection. He’s the only Republican in Congress to cosponsor the MORE Act. His challenger, retired U.S. Navy flight officer Phil Ehr (D), wants to look into rehabilitation instead of mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders, according to NORML.
“The upside here is Matt Gaetz is in a position of power, he has the ear of the president and he's actually using his power to speak up, when too many folks here [on Capitol Hill] don't,” Murphy says.
Texas District 17 House Seat
In Texas’ 17th Congressional District, Pete Sessions (R) and Rick Kennedy (D) are vying for the seat Bill Flores (R) is retiring from.
Sessions has been a thorn in the side of cannabis activists, Murphy says. “He's the former chair of the Rules Committee, and every time marijuana-related legislation, amendments, would be offered, the Rules Committee would rule them out of order,” he says.
When Sessions lost the 32nd district seat to Colin Allred in 2018, Murphy says, “We were happy to see him go. And now he’s going to come back because he moved 80 miles away into a district where the incumbent Republican was leaving office.”
A Bright Future
Murphy conveys optimism about the future of legal cannabis in the U.S. when he says, “I don't think we're going back. To use an old line, the toothpaste is out of the tube—and it’s brushing teeth already. You just can't go back, … the politics are on our side, policy is on our side. I don't think the industry has anything to worry about, regardless of what happens in November.”