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Politics and Pot: After the Iowa Caucuses

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Joint Opinions

Politics and Pot: After the Iowa Caucuses

Wherein your resident political junkie smokes a bowl and explains what happened in Iowa this week, and what to expect next. Share your comments below.

At long last, the political phony war is over, and actual votes are in. No matter which combination of candidates faces off in the finals in November, cannabis policy will be on the national ballot. Iowa has voted, so we know new things to expect going forward.

There are cannabis-relevant headlines on both sides, so let’s start with the Democrats.


When it comes to pot policy, it’s best to think of Clinton and Sanders as “Small Change” and “Big Change.” Clinton wants marijuana to be rescheduled on the level of cocaine and methamphetamine (Schedule II), which will make it easier to study as medicine. Sanders wants marijuana entirely unscheduled, a dramatic step toward national legalization and criminal justice reform.

The Iowa race was such a dead heat that it was not officially called until the next day. While not the most unexpected result, this somewhat defied expectations; the long-reigning gold standard poll had predicted Clinton would win by three points.

Technically, Hillary Clinton won, but her speech Monday night did not claim victory; its most memorable line was “breathing a big sigh of relief.”

Bernie Sanders, by contrast, labeled the result a “virtual tie,” proclaimed the official start of a “political revolution,” and flashed his biggest smile of the campaign. Indeed, the 24 hours following the result brought $3 million into Sanders’ campaign, which boasts a staggering 99.9 percent of its donors able to donate again under federal campaign finance rules.

Martin O’Malley barely registered in Iowa, and dropped out of the race during the evening.

At 9pm EST Thursday night, Big Change will go heads up against Small Change in a New Hampshire debate on MSNBC. It’s must-see political TV, and how fast America may change its cannabis policy hangs in the balance of the Democratic race.

Where Clinton and Sanders sit on marijuana policy is broadly reflective of where they sit within the Democratic electorate. Cannabis advocates would prefer both Clinton’s and Sanders’ proposed change to the marijuana status quo, even if they have a strong preference for the pace of that change.

From here onto the next 49 states (and a few districts and territories) as the two campaigns compete for the most delegates to win the nomination in San Jose later this year, the essential argument that both sides will prosecute is the wisdom of the go-slow and go-big approaches.

Clinton’s side says going slow is frustrating but the only realistic way to go. It’s practical; it works, they argue. One could argue that rescheduling cannabis to Schedule II will allow scientific study, which will inevitably reveal profound medical applications – particularly for marijuana-fearful older populations – which will on its own further impetus naturally push the public to embrace a later incremental move to unscheduling. Look to same-sex marriage model as an example, they might argue. Gay marriage became legal in America over six and a half years after Barack Obama was first elected, and by the time it happened, even most Republicans just shrugged.

Moreover, they allege Sanders has an electability problem, an unlitigated but key argument yet to be squarely examined by much of the Democratic primary electorate. Sanders has not faced similar sustained national scrutiny and Republican red-baiting over the term “socialism” that could be his undoing in a general election, Clinton allies say. Further, they argue, Sanders’ agenda has no possibility of being enacted with Republican blockages in Congress, meaning that his idealism is laudable but unrealistic.

On the other hand, Sanders replies truthfully that the exact same Republican blockages in Congress exist for Clinton; she is no more likely to enact her agenda than he is. Under those circumstances, then, the real ways a Congress-blocked president can effectively make an impact are through judicial appointments, regulatory appointments, and foreign policy.

It’s tough to foresee real policy daylight or an issue argument developing between Sanders and Clinton on judicial appointments, but you can see differences in both foreign policy and regulatory decisions, which implicates cannabis.

It’s entirely possible nobody will bring up cannabis within the now likely protracted nomination battle. It may seem to the candidates too small an issue relative to other presidential campaign topics. Yet, it is emblematic of the thematic choice Democrats have this election, so if one or the other brings up a relatively smaller presidential campaign issue like cannabis to illustrate that point, you’ll know which side feels like it has the upper hand in the argument.

The Sanders/Clinton split is generational more than gender-driven, and despite any rabbit-hole online bickering you may have read about or experienced, the mass of actual Democrats by and large like both candidates; they simply have a considered preference. Younger voters, excited in 2008 by the big, progressive trajectory outlined by Obama’s original campaign, and delivered on to varying degrees of success by the actual president, have embraced Sanders’ frustration at the very slowness of the pace of change.

The young also hold the most progressive positions on America’s cannabis policy. It is rare to find someone under 30 with patience for an argument that prohibition makes a lot of sense, even the Schedule II ban Clinton favors. Look for cannabis to possibly make a bigger appearance in the discussion going forward.


Iowa claimed the Republican side’s only cannabis-friendly candidate. No, not Mike Huckabee, who dropped out by tweet midway through Monday’s vote tallying.

Rand Paul, co-sponsor of the historic CARERS Act and the only Republican candidate who supports marijuana reform, officially dropped out Wednesday morning after a distant fifth place finish in Iowa with 4.5 percent of the vote. Iowa is quite familiar with the Paul brand. Four years ago, his father Ron finished a robust third at 21.4 percent, so Rand could see the outlook didn’t get better from here.

That makes the Republican side simple from a cannabis perspective. It means the party’s remaining candidates can be reduced to “Status Quo” or “Increased Prohibition” categories. The next debate is Saturday night in Manchester, NH at 8 pm EST on ABC. Frontrunner Donald Trump is expected to attend this one.

Let’s be a little cautious on where these candidates find themselves in a Republican primary as opposed to a general election. Ted Cruz, the staunchly conservative Iowa winner, isn’t suddenly going to embrace cannabis reform, However, Trump is still the overall favorite, despite his 3.3 percent loss to Cruz in Iowa. Trump is also an opportunist, who has shown an ability to break recent party orthodoxy on issues if he thinks he can win him more voters. What if Trump decides to go to Clinton’s left on cannabis in a general election? Maybe he doesn’t, but what if he’s trailing and sees a poll showing him it bumps him a few points? What if it’s Trump-Sanders race, and Trump mimics Sanders’ cannabis stance to blunt Sanders’ popularity with younger voters? Remain skeptical, but these are not implausible scenarios in a wild political year.

The next voting happens Tuesday in New Hampshire. Polling six days ahead of time suggest big wins loom for Sanders and Trump. But even the best polls have had a rough go.

What do you think will happen?

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