Democrats Hope Move to Reschedule Marijuana Will Help Them in November

Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post
Protesters inflated a giant plastic marijuana joint in front of the White House in October 2022, to demand the release of all people incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses.

A half-century after high school kids in California’s Marin County started using “4:20” as code for smoking marijuana, political advisers to the 81-year-old teetotaler president, Joe Biden, began signaling that he was hip to reefer slang.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced at 4:20 p.m. one day last year that it was moving forward with a plan to reschedule the drug. President Biden and Vice President Harris each tweeted at 4:20 p.m. on April 20 of this year that they supported reducing criminal penalties for pot users.

Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement Tuesday that he was rescheduling marijuana under federal law was just the latest turn in what Biden’s advisers see as a key political strategy – along with issues such as student loan relief and climate policy – to unlock votes this fall. When Biden’s White House social media account blasted out highlights from his 2024 State of the Union address, the X post quoting his promise to not jail marijuana users got more likes than ones on gun safety, the climate crisis and billionaire taxes.

“The political apparatus around the president are bigger fans of this than anyone else,” said Adam Goers, a Democratic strategist who runs the Coalition for Cannabis Scheduling Reform. “They recognized long ago that this seemingly controversial issue is incredibly popular.”

The proposed change also has the potential to set up a contrast with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, who has shown little interest in engaging with federal marijuana policy while previously saying he supports medical marijuana and states’ ability to set their own laws. GOP voters remain one of the only demographic groups in the nation who are still sharply split on full legalization.

A 2023 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of the country supported recreational legalization, but that number fell to 55 percent among Republicans and 52 percent among conservatives. The influential House Republican Policy Committee released a briefing in February that declared that “there is nothing ‘recreational’ about the use of marijuana,” while arguing that the drug was associated with violent crime and declines in worker productivity.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said Wednesday that the Biden administration’s efforts to reschedule marijuana will separate Biden from Trump on an issue that resonates with voters across the country. During Trump’s term in office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reestablished legal guidance that allowed federal prosecutors to pursue marijuana crimes in states where the drug is legal.

“Joe Biden has made clear by his record up to now and then with this latest effort that he wants to change marijuana policy to end the unfair and outdated criminalization,” she said. “Donald Trump showed by his record that he heads in exactly the opposite direction, wanting to incarcerate more people under a failed drug policy. That’s about as big a difference between two people as possible.”

Under the Biden administration’s proposed change, marijuana would be moved from a Schedule I drug – on par with heroin and LSD – to the less risky Schedule III – the same category as prescription drugs such as ketamine, anabolic steroids and testosterone.

The move would not legalize marijuana under federal law, but it would allow marijuana businesses to deduct business expenses for taxes and could lead to relaxing other cannabis-related rules for government employment, federal housing and visas.

Garland’s recommendation was technically the result of a rulemaking process based on a scientific analysis that Biden requested in 2022 from the Department of Health and Human Services. But Biden’s top advisers have made no secret of their desire for the outcome that emerged Tuesday.

Harris called for the Justice Department to act swiftly at a White House event in March, where she described marijuana’s Schedule I status as “absurd.”

“I cannot emphasize enough that they need to get to it as quickly as possible,” she said of rescheduling, without explicitly mentioning the upcoming election.

Opponents of rescheduling have argued that Biden is playing politics with American health and safety by chasing the polls. The Health and Human Services Department still warns Americans that marijuana can cause permanent IQ loss and harm fetal development. Marijuana use is also linked to depression, anxiety, suicide planning and psychotic episodes, the department says, though there has been no determination yet about whether the drug causes those conditions or is just more commonly used by those who suffer from them.

“For this administration to lean so much into the marijuana culture and essentially take the industry’s talking points at face value has devastated many in the public health and public safety community,” said Kevin Sabet, a former adviser to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who opposes rescheduling. “We should not be playing election-year politics with a drug.”

In presidential swing states such as Arizona, Nevada and Michigan, where recreational marijuana is already legal, the loosening of federal restrictions could boost Biden by helping a fledgling cannabis industry that has struggled to expand and turn profits. Thirty-eight states and D.C. have legalized medical marijuana programs, and 24 have approved recreational marijuana.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of the biggest champions for relaxing marijuana laws in Congress, said rescheduling the drug could only help Biden in his reelection. He credited a marijuana legalization ballot measure in Arizona in 2020 for attracting enough voters to propel Biden to a narrow victory. He also noted Sens. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) backed marijuana legalization during their successful campaigns in swing states.

“As I have pointed out to people on (Biden’s) campaign team and others in the political establishment, nobody has ever been punished for advocating cannabis reform,” he said. “A majority of Republicans now support full legalization. This is where America is, not where it’s going.”

Cannabis business operators say reclassifying marijuana would drastically reduce their tax burden, allowing them to expand their companies and hire more workers, feeding into classic campaign messaging on economic development and job creation.

“It’s a massive business benefit to the company and industry,” said Luke Flood, a regional executive for Curaleaf, which has a presence in 17 states, including operating 16 dispensaries in Arizona and six in Nevada. The company says that if it had the ability to deduct business expenses this year, it would save roughly $150 million in taxes.

Lilach Mazor Power, president of the Arizona Dispensaries Association, said the move could appeal to business-minded voters. Legal cannabis supports nearly 21,000 jobs in Arizona, according to the most recent report by cannabis employment firm Vangst.

“It will be a boost in our confidence that Biden is supporting businesses and personal decisions,” she said, before adding that she had not yet decided who she will vote for in the fall. “People that live here have seen the sky did not fall when we legalized.”

Florida is the only state so far to approve a recreational marijuana legalization ballot measure this year. New Hampshire lawmakers are weighing whether to expand from medical to recreational legalization, but they disagree over Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposal to set up a state-run monopoly.

The federal moves also could rally state lawmakers in Pennsylvania to legalize adult-use marijuana, said Steven M. Schain, a Pennsylvania attorney who teaches cannabis law at Stockton University in New Jersey. He said Pennsylvania lawmakers are increasingly recognizing that the state is missing out on cannabis tax revenue as residents flock over the border to several neighboring states to buy legal marijuana.

“Marijuana is not abortion as an issue, it’s not education,” said Michael Bronstein, a Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania who has advocated for marijuana legalization and co-founded a cannabis trade organization. “But it is something that indicates to voters that people who are for it are on their side, and I think the Biden administration and President Biden did well here and will get credit.”

Biden, at first glance, makes an unlikely champion for weed culture, having spent much of his career seeking to reduce marijuana and other drug use, particularly among younger populations. He wrote the so-called RAVE Act, which later passed into law in 2003, creating penalties for concert and music festival promoters who “knowingly” put on events for the use of a controlled substance. Biden told enforcement authorities he was displeased when the law was used to pressure a bar in Billings, Mont., to cancel a benefit concert by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana laws.

At a 1998 hearing of the Judiciary Committee, the senior senator from Delaware bemoaned a recent increase of reported marijuana use among high school students, called for more federal drug education under the DARE program and spoke out strongly against any move toward drug legalization.

“In the first drug strategy I released back in ’90, I wrote the trade that legalization offers is an unsavory one at best – greater personal safety for us in our homes, but bought at a price of increased child abuse, crack babies, teens dying from drug abuse,” Biden said. “Even if such trade could be had, I wonder what kind of nation we would be if we legalized. I remain convinced that legalization is absolutely a disaster.”

That rhetoric has since been replaced by an aggressive record of trying to decriminalize marijuana use. He offered a categorical pardon for federal and District of Columbia offenses of simple possession of marijuana. He has also called on governors to offer pardons for similar state offenses. He now supports legalization for medical purposes, consistent with medical and scientific evidence, according to a White House spokesperson.

“No one should be jailed for simply using or have it on their record,” Biden said during the State of the Union address.