How Elizabeth Warren would legalize marijuana and fight ‘Big Tobacco’

By Natalie Fertig

Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she would reduce federal funding to states that refuse to legalize marijuana and prevent “Big Tobacco“ from dominating the burgeoning industry in her wide-ranging plan to overhaul the country’s drug laws, which she announced Sunday in Denver.

Warren‘s plan is not as detailed and aggressive as the blueprint outlined by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, who eviscerated the field in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses. But she’s vowing to fill her administration with legalization supporters, immediately begin making dramatic changes to federal drug policies and protect state-legal marijuana markets.

Warren has long been supportive of legalization, but her campaign has offered few specifics on how she would accomplish that goal up until this point. However, she has been a prolific co-sponsor of cannabis bills on Capitol Hill. She is a lead sponsor of the STATES Act, which would provide more protections for states with recreational or medical marijuana markets, and a cosponsor of the MORE Act and the Marijuana Justice Act, both of which would remove marijuana from the list of banned substances under federal law. She also is lead sponsor of a bill to protect veterans who legally work in the marijuana industry.

Warren's new plan goes well beyond legalization. She also wants to scrap past federal cannabis convictions and find ways to give people with prior convictions an advantage if they want to work in the legal marijuana industry. In addition, she supports banking access for cannabis companies and permitting veterans to use marijuana without fear of federal punishment.

Warren's plan takes on corporations

The Massachusetts senator is well known for bashing big banks and fighting corruption. Her cannabis plan is no different. Warren calls for regulations that will "preserve market access and competition," and bar "Big Tobacco" from swooping in on the nascent industry. (The country’s biggest tobacco company has already invested nearly $2 billion in the cannabis industry).

Similar laws already exist in some states — in her home state of Massachusetts, for example, no company is allowed to own more than three of any one type of licensed cannabis businesses. But other states such as Oregon and California have allowed major corporate investments. The cannabis industry may not be federally legal, but large multistate corporations are already starting to emerge around the nation.

One such corporation is Acreage Holdings — which employs former House Speaker John Boehner on its board. In her plan, Warren attacks Boehner for his flip-flop on cannabis, saying he "now profits handsomely as a lobbyist for legalization even as others continue to live with the consequences of a prohibition he defended."

What about states that don't legalize?

Warren's plan would not force states to legalize cannabis. But it would reduce federal funding for law enforcement in states that decide not to legalize cannabis if the racial inequities in arrest rates for marijuana do not improve.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white people. While legalization reduces the rate of arrests overall, data shows that racial disparities in some places that have legalized marijuana stayed the same. In Colorado, 2.54 black people were arrested for marijuana for every one white person in 2010. In 2014, after legalization went into effect, it was 2.44 black people arrested for every one white person, despite arrest numbers dropping overall.

Warren's plan would not punish all states that continue to see such racial disparities, only those that decline to legalize cannabis use and sales.

But is there a social equity plan?

Yes. Warren's social equity plan is not as detailed as that of Sanders, who proposed creating grants for potential cannabis farmers from communities that were impacted by criminal drug penalties. Warren instead touts her support for two different bills on Capitol Hill: the Marijuana Justice Act, which proposes a $500 million annual fund to repair "damage done to communities that have been unjustly targeted by marijuana enforcement," and the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which would create a fund — from marijuana industry revenues — to help women- and minority-owned cannabis businesses.

Will she legalize on day one?

No. Unlike Sanders, who made headlines when he claimed he would legalize cannabis on his first day in office — something it’s unlikely he would actually have the power to do — Warren takes a different route. She promises to appoint people to lead the Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy who support marijuana legalization and the rest of her criminal justice agenda.

Warren also says she will immediately reinstate the Cole Memo — which prevented the Department of Justice from using federal funds to crack down on state-legal cannabis markets. The Cole Memo was rescinded in early 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

How is this different?

Most Democratic presidential candidates have embraced marijuana legalization, a stark change from even four years ago. Billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg all back federal legalization. But there are two remaining candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg — who back less dramatic changes to federal drug laws. Both candidates have a history of supporting punitive drug policies, but they’re now calling for eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession. Bloomberg and Biden also both support allowing states to set their own marijuana policies without fear of federal punishment.