How Elizabeth Warren became a cannabis champion without ever getting high

Published on September 11, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
presidential candidate elizabeth warren, democrat, presidential election, cannabis, vote on marijuana
(AP, Leafly)

Long known as a progressive firebrand on issues related to income inequality, corporate malfeasance, and corruption in government, Elizabeth Warren also regularly and forcefully champions cannabis legalization in Congress—often framing it as a social justice issue.

The senator from Massachusetts currently boasts an ‘A’ record from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and clearly sees legalization as a winning issue to run on in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

But her position on the issue hasn’t always been so cut and dried.

Here’s where the 2020 presidential candidates stand on cannabis

As recently as November 2016, Warren refused to fully endorse a legalization ballot initiative in the state she serves as senator. In fact, at the time, the closest she came to showing support for Massachusetts Question 4 was telling reporters she “would be open” to the possibility of legalizing cannabis “because I think that the problem we’ve got right now in Massachusetts is that we have decriminalized it—which makes marijuana available—but there’s no regulation over it for safety.”

Given the recent spate of illnesses and even deaths attributed to unregulated cannabis products sold outside the legal market, that carefully crafted policy position may now appear prescient. But at the time many cannabis reformers bristled at what must have sounded like an overly nuanced evasion of a clear question facing the electorate.

Certainly Warren’s milquetoast words of three years ago stand in stark contrast to her current full-throated support for ending federal cannabis prohibition, as voiced in an ongoing series of Twitter posts and viral videos that have been diligently chronicled by Kyle Jaeger over at Marijuana Moment.

‘Getting people off their rear ends’

Warren has since affirmed that she did, in fact, vote for the 2016 legalization initiative in her home state, just like 1,769,327 other citizens of Massachusetts (Question 4 passed 53.7% to 46.3%). More importantly, she’s spent significant time ever since devoting serious political capital to protecting legal states and pursuing federal legalization, most prominently by providing key support to a diverse array of progressive cannabis bills.

cannabis has proven to be one issue on which she has been able to reach across the aisle fairly effectively to build a bipartisan coalition.

The key moment in Warren’s pivot—or evolution, or political recalculation, or however you’d like to characterize it—seems to have come in March 2017, when she was one of just 11 senators who signed a letter to newly installed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, pushing back against public hints that the Department of Justice under Donald Trump was about to unleash a coordinated federal enforcement campaign against states with legal cannabis programs.

Given that Sessions had previously been one of the most virulent anti-cannabis voices in the Senate, there was true cause for alarm, particularly when the new administration’s mouthpiece floated a trial balloon that seemed designed to test the public’s reaction to a proposed crackdown.

Time to Admit It: Trump Opposes Cannabis Legalization

As the letter read, in part:

Last week Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that while President Trump supports medical marijuana, there is “a big difference between that and recreational marijuana,” alleging that medical marijuana states “have set forth a process to administer and regulate” that usage. Mr. Spicer also stated that he believed the public would see “greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws…

It is essential that states that have implemented any type of practical, effective marijuana policy receive immediate assurance from the DOJ that it will respect the ability of states to enforce thoughtful, sensible drug policies in ways that do not threaten the public’s health and safety.

Ultimately, the threatened crackdown never materialized, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that may be due in some part to forceful opposition from Warren and others. As she explained to Rolling Stone, the incident not only galvanized her personal support for federal legalization, it “acted as a catalyst in getting people up off their rear ends and moving on this issue.”

Thus inspired, Warren advanced into the vanguard of that fight, including backing legislation to provide public restitution to communities most negatively impacted by the war on marijuana when states legalize, and to withhold funds from states that don’t if they continue to allow racially discriminatory enforcement of cannabis laws.

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Cannabis bills co-sponsored by Warren include:

  • The STATES Act, which would exempt state-legal cannabis businesses from federal interference by amending the Controlled Substances Act, while addressing the ongoing struggle faced by cannabis companies in seeking access to banking.
  • The CARERS Act, which would prevent federal law enforcement from targeting state-legal medical cannabis patients, while providing support for research into the plant’s medicinal properties.
  • The Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act while expunging cannabis-related criminal records.
  • The MORE Act, which would remove cannabis from federal narcotics scheduling while spurring investment in communities disproportionately targeted by cannabis prohibition and the war on drugs.
  • The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which would support post-traumatic stress disorder research by requiring the Department of Veteran Affairs to investigate cannabis as a potential therapeutic option for former soldiers with PTSD.

The pot thickens

With her campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination gaining steam, Warren has increasingly become a favorite target of the right, largely because of her attacks on the unchecked power of Wall Street and corporate America. But ironically, cannabis has proven to be one issue on which she has been able to reach across the aisle fairly effectively to build a bipartisan coalition.

Most notably she’s done this by teaming up with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) to draft the STATES Act, which takes an overtly conservative-friendly, states-rights approach to the issue, and thus has been able to garner significant Republican support. Gardener, according to Rolling Stone, “was pivotal in getting the president to endorse the broad contours of their bill,” a key development in staving off a Session-led enforcement sweep.

The legislation itself remains in a holding pattern, however, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is vehemently opposed to the legalization of cannabis in any form other than hemp (which he now strongly supports), and thus refuses to bring the STATES Act and any other legalization measures up for a vote in the Senate. A single roadblock has now held up progress at the federal level for nearly three years, as Warren explained to Rolling Stone.

When Jeff Sessions highlighted aggressive law enforcement on marijuana and a lot of folks here in Congress looked at each other and said, ‘That’s a bad idea.’ What Cory [Gardener] and I have done is give them a place to channel that where we can make real change…

I care about this marijuana bill because I care about people in my home state who are at risk for getting arrested… for either buying marijuana or running a marijuana business. And I also care about when a state decides that marijuana should be legalized either for medicinal purposes or recreational purposes, or both, that the state ought to be the one in control.

Joint chief? Not exactly

Clearly, if Elizabeth Warren is successful in her run for the White House, we’ll finally have a commander in chief who fully supports federal legalization, including undoing the damage of the war on marijuana.

But is Elizabeth Warren the kind of candidate you’d like to smoke a joint with?

Maybe so, and she’s certainly on the right side of the issue, but the senator probably wouldn’t return the sentiment. She says she’s never consumed cannabis in her life and has no plans to start now.

So for the time being, you’ll have to settle for “grabbing a drink,” though you can still very feel good about lighting one up in her honor.

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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