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MARIJUANA MOMENT

Where presidential contender Elizabeth Warren stands on marijuana

Senator Elizabeth Warren stands to be recognized during the swearing in and the first formal session of the 191st General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on Wednesday.
Senator Elizabeth Warren stands to be recognized during the swearing in and the first formal session of the 191st General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on Wednesday. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Marijuana Moment is a wire service assembled by Tom Angell, a marijuana legalization activist and journalist covering marijuana reform nationwide. The views expressed by Angell or Marijuana Moment are neither endorsed by the Globe nor do they reflect the Globe’s views on any subject area.

Senator Elizabeth Warren announced on Monday that she’s forming an exploratory committee ahead of a likely 2020 presidential run, making her the first major potential contender to take formal legal steps toward launching a bid for the Democratic nomination in what’s expected to be a crowded primary.

While Warren is widely known as an advocate for consumer protections and Wall Street regulation, she’s also developed a reputation as a champion for modernizing marijuana laws. That wasn’t always the case, as the senator was previously somewhat dismissive of cannabis reform attitudes, and declined to endorse her home state of Massachusetts’ legalization ballot measure ahead of Election Day 2016, but her position quickly evolved as public opinion on the issue shifted demonstrably in favor of reform, particularly among Democratic primary voters.

Legislation

Warren is the lead sponsor of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which she filed in partnership with Senator Cory Gardner, of Colorado, in June. The legislation would amend the Controlled Substances Act to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from federal interference and is also aimed at addressing banking access issues for the cannabis industry.

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The senator has co-sponsored at least six other major pieces of cannabis reform legislation. That includes two wide-ranging bills from Senator Cory Booker, of New Jersey: the CARERS Act, which was designed to protect medical marijuana patients from federal enforcement efforts and stimulate research into the plant, and the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and direct federal courts to expunge the criminal records of those previously convicted of a cannabis-related offense.

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The latter bill also goes beyond the regular “states’ rights” mantra long expressed by reformers on Capitol Hill by actually withholding funding from states that maintain discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws.

Warren also signed onto a marijuana descheduling bill introduced by Senator Chuck Schumer, of New York, and another that would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans. Additionally, she co-sponsored two bills aimed at providing banking access to marijuana businesses: the SAFE Banking Act in 2017 and the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act in 2015.

Sign-On Letters

In March 2017, Warren signed a letter expressing concern about remarks from then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who hinted at a federal crackdown on legal cannabis states. The letter encouraged the Justice Department to allow states to operate legal cannabis systems without fear of federal intervention.

In November 2017, the senator wrote a letter to Trump’s then-nominee to head up the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar. In the letter, she said the administration should consider legalizing cannabis as a means to combat the opioid epidemic, citing research indicating the legal states experience lower rates of opioid overdoses compared to non-legal states.

And in January 2018, she sent a letter with a bipartisan coalition of co-signers imploring President Trump to direct former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reinstate the Cole memo, an Obama-era document providing guidance on federal marijuana enforcement. Doing so would “create a pathway to more comprehensive marijuana policy that respects state interests and prerogatives,” the lawmakers wrote.

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Tweets

Quotes

“Outdated federal marijuana laws have perpetuated our broken criminal justice system, created barriers to research, and hindered economic development,” Warren said in June. “States like Massachusetts have put a lot of work into implementing common sense marijuana regulations – and they have the right to enforce their own marijuana policies. The federal government needs to get out of the business of outlawing marijuana.”

“Forcing legitimate marijuana businesses to operate a cash-only business is dangerous,” she said in a press release about cannabis banking legislation. “It creates unnecessary public safety issues for communities and business owners. The SAFE Banking Act is a common sense bill that would advance state efforts to regulate the sale of marijuana and support businesses working to establish reliable business operations.”

“Another option to tackle the opioid crisis is to invest in more research on alternative pain therapies, including physical therapy and new drugs that don’t have abuse potential,” Warren said during a 2016 hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “Medical marijuana might also be a viable alternative, but the truth is we just don’t know,” she said, noting the barriers to research that exist due to federal prohibition.

The senator hasn’t always been receptive to broad reform:

Warren tried to use the pro-legalization stance of former Massachusetts Representative Dan Winslow against him as he sought the Republican nomination for US Senate in 2013.

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She said, “I advise everyone to pay very close attention to Dan Winslow’s platform. He has a 100 percent ranking from the gun lobby, and he’s for the legalization of marijuana. He wants us armed and stoned.”

She also angered some cannabis reform advocates by staying on the sidelines of Massachusetts’ 2016 legalization ballot campaign, coming only so close as to say she “would be open to the possibility of legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts” prior to Election Day.

But that didn’t stop her from later falsely stating that she actually endorsed the measure.

“Yes, I did,” she said earlier this year. “Oh, I did.”

While the senator later clarified that she voted in favor of the measure in the privacy of the voting booth, that explanation fell far short of what Bay State advocates were hoping to see from their progressive senator.

Still, Warren’s evolution on cannabis issues over the past two years has transformed her into one of Congress’s leading advocates for ending federal prohibition, a stance she would be expected to take with her into the Oval Office if she’s elected.

Read this story on Marijuana Moment.