Up for Debate

Tonight’s Parley Lacks an Important Question

by Bridget Hennessey, Vice President for Government Relations at Weedmaps

Who knows what to expect tonight when Donald Trump and Joe Biden meet in Cleveland for the first of three presidential debates. Without a doubt, it’s going to be quite a show.

There are some things we do know for certain though — the “topics” moderator Chris Wallace has selected to pose to the candidates.

According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the 90-minute debate will be divided into six 15-minute discussion areas: “the Trump and Biden records; the Supreme Court; Covid-19; the Economy; Race and Violence in our Cities; and the Integrity of the Election.”

To be sure, both candidates have made public statements about cannabis for years, but I doubt the issue will be raised when their records are compared. And except for specific cases, like Gonzales v. Raich — where the court ruled that Congress may criminalize production and use of homegrown cannabis even if it’s legal in the state for medical purposes — there isn’t much of a connection right now to the Supreme Court.

As a matter of fact, cannabis legalization doesn’t fit neatly in any of the topic areas. But there are a few connections worth noting:

One of the great promises of cannabis legalization is reversing the damages done to minority communities and individuals by the failed “war on drugs.” Black men, in particular have been impacted the most by reactionary criminal justice efforts like the “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing guidelines. Illegal cannabis incarcerated too many people, leaving them with criminal records that served as scarlet letters. Legal cannabis, on the other hand, can serve as an entrepreneurial vehicle for many of those same individuals to access the middle class. This can and should be aided by the government as it looks to right the wrongs of the past.

Legalization efforts, thus far, have often included expungement of criminal records for many cannabis-related crimes. Social equity initiatives, where those who built the industry — and often incarcerated for it — have legal business ownership opportunities and a voice in the industry’s future, are also a critical component.

A candidate for President of the United States would be wise to highlight these issues. Improving race issues in our country, while stimulating economic growth, are policy objectives that would energize voters.

As are solutions to the havoc Covid-19 has wreaked on every level of the economy — national, state and local. The pandemic is crippling important public services and threatening the livelihoods of workers.

So, as mayors and governors search for new tax revenue and cost savings, legal cannabis is no longer viewed as a joke. Rather, more and more, legal cannabis is considered a viable, credible option for local, state and national economic development and the accompanying tax revenue and cost savings that can help fund vital public services;

And finally, consider this: just as voters are reminded about “down-ballot” candidates and measures, interference in the US election would impact more than just the candidates at the top of the ballot. Results for every other candidate and ballot initiative would be compromised as well. Several states have cannabis legalization on the ballot, so the integrity of the election has a significant impact on the growth and viability of the legal cannabis industry.

I don’t expect that any of this will be brought up tonight or during the vice presidential debate on October 7. But cannabis legalization should be addressed during one of the remaining debates.

Cannabis is linked to so many aspects of American life — from personal privacy to veterans’ health. Voters deserve clarity on exactly where the candidates stand on the issue.

President Trump’s position, based on previous statements, lacks specifics — although in August he urged Republicans not to put legalization measures on state ballots fearing it would increase Democratic turnout. Additional insights would certainly be warranted for the hundreds of thousands of Americans working in the legal sector that generate millions and millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Former Vice President Biden’s position is well known and centers around his belief that more research is needed. But thousands of studies have already been done, peer-reviewed, published, and presented. One question for him: when is enough enough?

The candidates will square off again in a town hall-style debate in Miami on October 15, with questions poised by undecided voters. The last debate will be held in Nashville on October 22 and the format will be similar to tonight’s.

For many voters, answers from the presidential candidates about cannabis legalization would be helpful before they decided which yard sign to put up.

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