Trump’s Opposition to Marijuana is Bad Politics

President Donald Trump is coaching Republican officials to avoid cannabis ahead of November’s elections, which is perplexing marijuana advocates – along with some Republican lawmakers – who recognize the issue is both popular and bipartisan.  

While in Wisconsin on Monday, the president blamed former-Gov. Scott Walker’s 2018 loss on the myriad of cannabis legalization ballot initiatives that overwhelmingly passed his state that year.  

“The next time you run please don’t put marijuana on the ballot at the same time you’re running,” Trump told Walker in front of the crowd. “You brought out like a million people that nobody ever knew were coming out.”

Those 23 separate ballot initiatives all sailed through. Only around 281,000 Wisconsin voters opposed legalizing cannabis for adults, even as more than 644,000 voters supported the effort. And while some 89,000 people opposed medical marijuana, more than 80 percent of voters – upwards of 375,000 people – cast ballots welcoming it. While Wisconsin law makes the ballot measures non-binding, the takeaway from those lopsided votes was not that marijuana is a partisan issue. If anything, advocates argue, the opposite is true: It’s one of the most bipartisan issues in contemporary politics.  

“President Trump’s remarks highlight nothing more than the simple fact that Americans favor marijuana legalization and will turn out to vote at the ballot box in favor of reform if given the opportunity,” Justin Strekal, the Political Director for pro-cannabis advocacy group NORML, told The News Station. “This year, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota will have that opportunity. That’s simply how democracy works, but it appears that Trump is antagonistic of the practice of voting in general.”

Trump seems to have been briefed on cannabis recently, but his response is perplexing, especially because vulnerable Republicans have urged the president to endorse legislation to end the federal prohibition on cannabis. Embattled Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado has repeatedly even told reporters and voters that Trump has personally assured him he’d sign federal decriminalization legislation, even though the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, laughed off that idea in a recent interview with The News Station.

Still, one of the president’s top allies in Congress is also one of the most vocal proponents of marijuana in Washington, and he says the president’s remarks are being taken out of context.

“He was discussing how marijuana impacted the 2018 election cycle turnout. That was a different time,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) texted The News Station. “That was before the Congressional Black Caucus was blocking the STATES Act and before the DNC took a step back on marijuana policy this year.”

A request for comment from the Congressional Black Caucus wasn’t returned by publication.

In 2016 the Democratic platform included a pathway to legalization for cannabis, yet this year Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden angered progressives by steering the party away from legalization in favor of decriminalization. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) called the party’s 2020 platform “embarrassing” in an exclusive interview with The News Station last month.  

Pro-cannabis Democrats and advocates are perplexed by the strongly prohibitionist stance coming from the White House, especially because polls steadily show more than 2/3rds of Americans support legalization in one form or another. And they say data shows that cannabis is a winning issue for politicians of all ideological stripes.  

“One race that I know it would have made a profound difference: If Hillary Clinton was able to make a coherent answer to the question about legalization of cannabis, I think she’d be president today,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) told me back during the 2018 midterms.

The founding member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus has thought a lot about Clinton’s loss by such a slim margin four years ago.

“I think it would have shifted 74,800 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania,” Blumenauer said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have more than doubled that mark with advocacy for legal cannabis.”

Like Trump signaled on Monday, Blumenauer knows Clinton was briefed on marijuana’s popularity four years ago. And it’s not only because he was the one who briefed her on it twice.  

“I know she got the message because her notes from one of the conversations I had with her ended up in the WikiLeaks stuff,” Blumenauer told me. “When we had some cannabis activists I went to her campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, talked to the fundraising people, talked to the policy people, talked to the political people.”  

That’s why Biden’s opposition to legalization is annoying, confusing, and frustrating many advocates and Democrats who are still smarting from Clinton’s lukewarm – at best – support of marijuana legalization four years ago.

“She just didn’t do it forthrightly, and I think it was the difference,” Blumenauer contends.    

Now that Trump seems to be leaving the issue on the field for Democrats to pick up and run with, many advocates and Democratic lawmakers are wondering why their party’s new standard bearer has refused to embrace one of the most bipartisan issues being debated this election cycle. Because the current president seems to want nothing to do with the substance that’s now legally – at least locally – enjoyed by millions of voters of all stripes.

Matt Laslo

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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