Dear future nominees:
Eight months from today one of you will be inaugurated the 45th President of the United States. There is much to think about between now and then, but one issue with a penchant for falling between the cracks is marijuana policy. Marijuana policy is no longer just a punchline, reserved for the attention of activists. Marijuana policy will be a serious part of the next administration’s domestic policy, and it is critical that you create a strategy accordingly.
Both of you have suggested you are open to reforms or, at a minimum, to let states operate as they wish. However, a laissez-faire approach to cannabis is a dangerous stance that creates a bevy of policy problems at the federal, state and local levels. There is tremendous complexity involved in creating a uniform and consistent policy strategy. Marijuana will impact almost every corner of your administration—some obvious, some less so. To get it right—that is to make sure that your administration advances your policy goals—there are seven key steps to take.
1. When vetting possible appointees, ask them about cannabis
It will be shocking how many political appointees deal with marijuana policy. I will not provide an exhaustive review of every position; instead, I will focus on key appointees who have tremendous influence on this issue. These officials, in previous administrations, either worked in lockstep to advance Drug War prohibition or worked in scattered ways that simultaneously advanced reform and criminalization. As you select the right individuals for such posts, understanding their views on and knowledge of marijuana policy is essential to any effort your administration may take in this area.
First, and most obviously, your choice for drug czar—the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy—will have a substantial impact on marijuana in the U.S. As both a White House official and a policy coordinator, this person will have reach far beyond his or her office, and in the past, the drug czar has been among the most hardened soldiers in the War on Drugs. If you want to pursue marijuana or other drug policy reform during your tenure as president, this individual can help or hinder those efforts.
Next, some of your top law enforcement and related officials play huge roles in how drug policy and drug laws are executed. They include the Attorney General, the FBI Director, and the DEA Administrator. The choices these officials make with regard to criminal investigations will affect states that have opted for marijuana reform. In particular, the Attorney General’s oversight over United States Attorneys also affects marijuana businesses, patients, and consumers in the states. The DEA chief also plays a central role in any rescheduling petition and understanding that appointee’s stance on marijuana rescheduling (and policy generally) is essential.
Beyond law enforcement, there is a financial aspect to marijuana policy that the next president must address. States, businesses, and consumers continuously experience the consequences of the marijuana industry’s lack of access to banking services and mainstream business tax treatment. It creates security risks and market uncertainties that can be damning for the industry and individuals. The Treasury Secretary, the IRS Commissioner, and your future pick for Federal Reserve Chair all have the opportunity to advance sound reforms and more permanent solutions to a public policy problem that is not going away.
Finally, it is important to remember that science is the key to understanding marijuana. Both of you have suggested you want expanded scientific research into cannabis. The best way to achieve that end is to talk directly with prospective appointees for HHS Secretary and the heads of FDA and NIDA. These officials are central to advancing medical and scientific research in all areas, including marijuana, and the FDA and HHS chiefs play a role in rescheduling petitions. Their positions on a variety of public health policy will be important for your administration and marijuana should be part of those conversations.
2. Talk to Congress about marijuana
Congress isn’t new to the marijuana game. The legislative branch has introduced countless pieces of legislation, and provides ideas and leadership on this issue—across both parties. Whether you are focused on marijuana policy specifically or drug policy more broadly, you will have plenty of resources on Capitol Hill. Marijuana reform, in particular, is a bipartisan issue that you can use in the first 100 days (or more) to build bridges and foster relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle. You will find numerous members of the House and Senate ready to engage with you on this issue, despite their opposition to you on many others. Thus far, successful marijuana reform efforts in Congress have been narrow and few, and presidential leadership can advance broader and more sustained reform.
You can bring new ideas to the table on how best to deal with this issue, but it is important to remember that your drug policy does not have be entirely new or original. There is plenty of ready-to-go legislation in the works (and there will be in the new Congress as well).
3. Talk to states that passed marijuana reform
Governors, state regulators, state legislators, mayors, and other officials face serious marijuana policy challenges every day. Yes, some of those challenges exist because of state-specific issues, policy flaws, or enforcement problems. Though, many—if not most—of the problems facing states exist not because of the state’s own mishaps but because federal policy is so broken. Engaging with partners in state government will offer your administration a comprehensive and detailed understanding of both the extent of those problems and how federal policies can provide solutions. The creation of a federal-state marijuana policy working group would be an effective first step in putting those policy needs into focus and opening communication among all levels of government.
4. Talk to cannabis businesses, patients, consumers, and activists
Hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. engage with the marijuana industry every year, whether they are business owners, employees, patients or customers. They represent a nontrivial segment of the population; yet, they remain largely voiceless when it comes to federal policy. Interest groups and advocates are only heard in some legislative offices, and in previous administrations it was hard to be taken seriously in the executive branch. Cannabis remains taboo to elected officials even as public opinion rapidly transforms. Your administration has the opportunity to change that, elevating this issue to the level of significance it deserves. There does not necessarily have to be an endorsement of marijuana use; but the next administration must endorse marijuana as a policy area that deserves presidential attention, as more than half of Americans lives in states that have passed marijuana reform.
One way to elevate the conversation and signal a presidential commitment to better policy is convening a White House Summit on National Cannabis Policy. This summit would be the first of its kind, and would reflect a simple reality: there is no policy in the U.S. that affects so many people and yet has garnered so little presidential attention. You will show the public that you take seriously the need to address the issue in an open, honest, and historic way. Some of what you hear from those you convene will be self-serving (that’s likely true of any presidential meeting with any stakeholder on any issue), but the summit will provide you a stay-at-home listening tour that offers a first-hand look at the needs, worries, challenges, and the landscape these people face each day.
5. Talk to marijuana reform opponents
Hearing from all sides of the marijuana issue is important. Engaging with reform opponents will be an important part of the conversation. You will hear end-of-world hyperbole, for sure. But you will also hear from well-meaning activists who offer legitimate concerns about what the future of this policy will mean. They will also echo some of the concerns—legitimate or otherwise—that constituents will have about marijuana reform. Reflecting on those concerns—youth use, accidental ingestion, product safety, DUID, etc.—will help design policies that effectively meet public expectations. One of the most successful aspects of the Colorado recreational legalization program was their reliance on a working group model to prepare the state for implementation. The working groups drew from a diverse set of stakeholders on all sides of the issue and offered the state a varied stream of information. Doing the same at the presidential level is absolutely essential.
6. Talk to scientists studying (or trying to study) cannabis
Science is an integral part of the cannabis conversation, and your administration should commit to getting the best science to answer the most important questions. While plenty of studies have been completed on the topic, much more can and should be done. The first step is to understand how federal policy limits scientific inquiry into marijuana. The medical and scientific system is broken when it comes to cannabis, and your administration has the opportunity to work with the scientific community to fix it. The desire for better science on this issue is uncontroversial. The most ardent drug warrior, convinced that marijuana is a threat to society, should be ready for science to support his view. The most passionate reform advocate should want science to confirm her views about the efficacy of cannabis and individual cannabinoids. You should pursue scientific reform at full speed and make sure your administration does not let government come between scientists and their research.
7. Think about your marijuana legacy
Public opinion on marijuana policy has changed rapidly over the past 20 years. Huge majorities of Americans nationally and at the state-level support medical marijuana reform, and consistent majorities support recreational legalization nationally. Since 1996, 24 states and DC have embraced medical marijuana reform. Since 2012, four states and DC have approved recreational reform. On Election Day, voters won’t simply pull the Trump or Clinton lever for president. Voters in several additional states will consider ballot measures about medical and recreational legalization.
The nation is changing its views on cannabis, and reform is not a flash in the pan, but a certainty in the future of American public policy. Your administration has the opportunity to initiate a sensible, safe, effective, and robust reform that reflects the policy changes in the states and a federal government ready to facilitate a working system. You can help mold the future of this policy, or you can be a bystander to history, remembered more for being a roadblock than a transformational policy champion. Ten years ago it would have been toxic to engage marijuana policy in this way, but as America changes its mind on cannabis, it may be even more toxic to stand by and do nothing about it.