The Case for Hillary Clinton
Tracking the former First Lady, senator and Secretary of State’s transformation from anti-pot zealot to cannabis pragmatist.
On the verge of becoming the next president of the United States, and the first woman to hold the highest elected office in the nation, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political evolution, and the counsel she takes to help her form her views and public policies on cannabis, could affect upwards of 45 million citizens who—both legally and illegally—cultivate, process, sell and consume marijuana in its various forms.
At no other time in history during a presidential race has marijuana prohibition been discussed more widely, demonstrating how quickly the public policy winds have shifted. If elected president, Clinton will be sitting on top of a federal powder keg regarding pot policies, as more states vote to end prohibition. When her husband Bill Clinton was elected the 42nd president in 1992, approximately 20% of the public supported legalization. Today, most national and state polls demonstrate that a majority of voters favor taxing and regulating cannabis.
With the political reality that 42 states now allow patient access to cannabis-based medicines, 15 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts and, most challenging for the federal government, four Western states have legalized marijuana outright (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington), the nation’s next president will have no choice but to confront the increasing desire of citizens and states to end cannabis prohibition, and to replace failed policy with regulations similar to the laws that govern alcohol production and consumption.
While pragmatism and caution might be the best two words to describe Clinton’s approach to cannabis policy, another word is also applicable: evolutional.
The Clintons Take Arkansas by Storm
Hillary Clinton has been in the public spotlight for nearly 40 years as the wife of one of the most ambitious and quick-to-ascend politicians in the modern era, William Jefferson Clinton. Barely out of his twenties, Bill Clinton became the youngest state attorney general in U.S. history, and was twice elected governor of Arkansas before successfully running for president in 1992.
Throughout his entire political career, Bill Clinton touted that one of the great benefits of electing him to political office was that voters were getting a two-for-one deal that included his equally intelligent and politically adroit wife Hillary. The Clintons’ ascendency in Arkansas politics occurred concurrently with the federal government’s controversial and ineffective War on Drugs and its emphasis on cannabis consumers. In a country that lurched to the right politically under the Reagan and Bush presidencies, with both administrations placing a high priority on the drug war, the Clintons—ostensibly progressive Democrats politicking in the generally conservative, Republican-leaning state of Arkansas—strongly hewed to the “Just Say No” drug-war mantra, placing them solidly in the political mainstream.
During the 1980s, Arkansas became the focus of international law enforcement and national security scrutiny due to international drug trafficking in the small mountain town of Mena, to which large amounts of South American cocaine was reportedly airlifted and then distributed regionally with assistance from corrupt law enforcement and Arkansas politicians; the years that the Mena operation thrived in Arkansas correspond with the years that Bill Clinton was the state’s governor (1979–1981 and 1983–1992).
In 1992, near the very end of the Clintons’ tenure as Arkansas’ First Family, before they left Little Rock for the D.C. Beltway, cannabis law reform activists started to campaign for medical marijuana by placing large billboards around the Arkansas State Capitol building encouraging the newly elected president to “legalize medical access to marijuana.” Local media in Arkansas extensively covered the medical marijuana billboards, making it impossible that the Clintons were unaware of the growing socio-political movement to dramatically alter marijuana laws. Thus, a seed for cannabis law reform had likely been planted then in the political psyches of both Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The Sins of the Clinton Presidency
While Bill Clinton often touted the state’s First Lady as his partner in the crafting of public policy in Arkansas, when he arrived in Washington, D.C. in January 1993 to assume the presidency from ardent drug warrior George H.W. Bush, he began the longest, most sustained and most expensive effort ever in the War on Drugs, with a massive increase in arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations for drug-related crimes.
Clinton strongly supported the passage of the 1994 federal Omnibus Crime bill, which increased penalties for people charged with drug crimes. This regrettable hallmark of his presidency prompted a massive increase in incarceration and the enhancement of what was already a racially disparate criminal justice system. In addition, after Prop 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California, passed in 1996, Clinton’s Department of Justice (DOJ) tried to thwart the popular will of voters by raiding dispensaries and medical grow operations in the Golden State.
Out of touch with and contrary to growing public sentiment regarding cannabis law reform around the country, in 1998 the Clinton administration blocked Washington, D.C.’s ability to implement a medical cannabis initiative that had passed with nearly 69% of the vote. Thankfully, the DOJ largely lost their initial court battles to stop states from implementing voter-approved cannabis policies that were in direct conflict with federal laws. Had the Clinton administration prevailed, for example, in not allowing physicians to invoke their First Amendment rights to confidentially confer with patients, there very likely would not be over a million legal medical cannabis patients in the U.S. today.
When Clinton was first elected president in 1992, approximately 280,000 annual cannabis-related arrests were made nationwide. By the time he departed in 2000, that number had leapt to more than 700,000.
In one of his first exit interviews, Clinton told Rolling Stone that “small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be.” He also discussed his younger brother Roger’s cocaine problem and subsequent incarceration:
“If he hadn’t gone to prison—and actually been put away, forcibly, somewhere—it is doubtful that he would have come to grips with it. He was still denying that he was addicted, right up until he was sentenced. So I’m not sure that incarceration is all bad, even for drug offenders, depending on the facts.”
Senator Clinton’s Cannabis Evolution
As attorney general of Arkansas, the twice-elected governor of Arkansas and the twice-elected president of the United States, drug policy and implementation were squarely Bill Clinton’s responsibility. Hillary Clinton did not have to officially confront the policy conundrums of cannabis prohibition until she was elected in 2001 to represent New York in the U.S. Senate, during which time her office regularly rebuffed constituents asking her to reform cannabis laws for medical use by claiming the need for more research on the plant’s efficacy.
While not overtly supportive of pot policy changes—she offered no medical marijuana bills or requested any public hearings on the subject—Senator Clinton’s constituent letters began to demonstrate an openness to discussion and possible policy changes not found in many of her fellow senators’ constituent letters. Unlike her colleagues in the House of Representatives, who were confronted annually with a budget spending amendment that would have restricted federal marijuana law enforcement in states that had enacted medical cannabis laws, Senator Clinton and her Senate colleagues never had to cast a public vote for or against any marijuana-specific legislation.
The major policy break from her husband’s head-in-the-sand approach regarding cannabis was first revealed by Senator Clinton during her unsuccessful presidential run in 2008, when she and the rest of the Democratic presidential hopefuls publicly backed medical access to cannabis products. Barack Obama ultimately won the Democratic nomination and presidency, during which time he has loosened federal marijuana laws more than any other president. Clinton accepted his invitation to become Secretary of State; unlike most of her predecessors, she devoted relatively little time and energy on furthering the War on Drugs.
Following Bernie Sanders’ Lead on Pot Policy
While he may not have had the strongest prospects of being elected the next president, there’s little question that the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders had the profound effect of nudging Clinton from middle-right to left-of-center on the matter of cannabis policy. Senator Sanders’ support for ending cannabis prohibition, and the popularity of this position within Democratic ranks, forced Clinton—whether she genuinely wanted to or not—to adopt Sanders’ call for cannabis law reforms.
Consequently, at the height of the contested Democratic primary, Sanders supporters regularly cited
President Bill Clinton’s support and signing of the 1994 Omnibus Crime bill as a demerit against his wife’s candidacy. At numerous Democratic debates with Sanders, Clinton repeatedly endorsed the notion that states that choose to do something different regarding marijuana policy are “laboratories of democracy” that can possibly help inform other states and the federal government about alternative policies.
So complete has been her evolution from Arkansas First Lady at the height of the “Just Say No” epoch to potential reefer reformer-in-chief, the day after the DEA’s Aug. 10 announcement affirming the government’s long-held position that cannabis is too dangerous to be rescheduled for medical use, Clinton’s campaign publicly chided the DEA:
“As president, Hillary will build on the important steps announced today by rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance. She will also ensure Colorado and other states that have enacted marijuana laws can continue to serve as laboratories of democracy.”
GOP nominee Donald Trump also has publicly endorsed state experiments with pot policy. However, unlike Clinton’s prominent and immediate statement on the bureaucratic folly, Trump did not criticize the DEA’s decision to maintain an untenable Schedule I classification of cannabis under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Clinton, Cannabis and the Future
If Hillary Clinton ascends to the presidency, she appears poised to support amending federal anti-drug policies to allow medical access to cannabis products; decriminalizing cannabis possession at the federal level; and allowing states to develop their own cannabis legalization policies. With national polling showing cannabis law reform far more popular among voters than among elected officials, it would behoove her to readily bend to the will of pro-reform voters.
Regardless of who the next president is, he or she will very likely be confronted by as many as five more states—including the nation-state of California—where voters have circumvented recalcitrant state legislators on the issue of cannabis legalization, cast their states in conflict with current federal anti-pot laws and joined a growing number of states chucking prohibition in favor of tax-and-regulate policies instead.
If Clinton wins the election, the political and regulatory appointments she makes to agencies like the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Department of Justice, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the DEA will have a profound effect on federal cannabis policy going forward. Along with a changed public attitude in favor of legalization, America’s next president will be confronted by a growing number of countries in the hemisphere—which, ironically, are following the lead of U.S. states that have legalized cannabis—that now favor tax-and-regulate over the chaos and waste of prohibition. Uruguay was first, followed by Jamaica, and last year’s election of Justin Trudeau as Canada’s pro-pot prime minister has further encouraged states’ efforts to abandon federal anti-pot laws.
Despite little praise from drug reformers, President Obama has accomplished what no other president has done before regarding cannabis: Rather than seek laws and policies that extend federal pot prohibition, his administration has substantively backed the federal government away from prohibition, through a series of executive memos, changes in enforcement implementation and deference to states’ rights. The next president will inherit a cannabis prohibition policy that is in true flux, and there will likely be a resolution sooner rather than later to end the nearly 79-year failed federal prohibition of cannabis.
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