Anti-Legalization Group Urges Caution as 2020 Dems Unite Around Marijuana Policy

Dr. Kevin Sabet, SAM's president and CEO
September 24, 2019

There is little daylight between the Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls on the issue of marijuana, with nearly all of the candidates supporting legalization and efforts to reverse the negative consequences of the government's decades-old war on drugs.

Former Congressman Beto O'Rourke last week became the latest contender to release a plan, which includes full federal legalization and expungement for past convictions, among other progressive policies. With the notable exception of former Vice President Joe Biden — who favors decriminalization — O'Rourke's positions are largely embraced by the other candidates, including leading figures like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

"It's our responsibility to begin to remedy the injustices of the past and help the people and communities most impacted by this misguided war," O'Rourke said in a statement.

Yet one organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which is one of the leading voices against legalization, warns that treating marijuana like alcohol could have unintended consequences. The organization makes the argument that legalization could lead to the emergence of a monstrous, profit-seeking tobacco-like industry and the proliferation of dangerously concentrated cannabis products.

"[People] don't really want a pot shop in their own backyard," Dr. Kevin Sabet, SAM's president and CEO, told Cheddar. Sabet said Americans prefer decriminalization, which would essentially treat marijuana infringements like a speeding ticket, as opposed to legalization.

Public polling, however, suggests otherwise. A Pew Research poll last year found that 62 percent of Americans, and 74 percent of millennials, support legalizing marijuana. Another Gallup poll from last year said that 66 percent of Americans favor legalization.

Sabet also said that marijuana is not a "motivating factor" for most voters. "It is not as salient as many of the other issue out there now," claimed Sabet, who also served as a drug policy advisor in the Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations and whose organization lobbies against state-level legalization as well.

Yet the majority of 2020 Democrats — from Sen. Amy Klobuchar to Mayor Pete Buttigieg — have, nevertheless, seized the issue, arguing that legalization is essential for curbing injustice and waste in the criminal justice system, decreasing the U.S. prison population, and creating tax revenue that could revitalize certain communities.

Several of the candidates currently serving in Congress are also supporting legalization through legislative action. Earlier this year, Sen. Cory Booker, a 2020 candidate himself, reintroduced his Marijuana Justice Act, which seeks to legalize the substance at the federal level and correct the consequences of past tough-on-crime policies. The bill is co-sponsored by four other 2020 hopefuls: Sen. Warren, Sen. Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Sen. Michael Bennet.

"By outlawing marijuana, the federal government puts communities of color, small businesses, public health and safety at risk," Warren said in a statement.