As Democrats hurl themselves into the 2020 presidential fray, marijuana reformers are finding an unprecedented number of new friends and apologetic former enemies, some of whom they aren’t sure if they can trust.
Among the new converts are Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, both former prosecutors, while vintage anti-drug warrior and former Vice President Joe Biden apologized for helping implement harsh drug penalties.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is a gradual convert, after opposing his state’s 2012 decision to become the first, alongside Washington, to legalize recreational marijuana.
“I’m not quite there to say this is a great success, but the old system was awful," Hickenlooper said Feb. 13 in a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago, in a state considering legalizing recreational pot, the Chicago Tribune reported. He also touted the tax revenue that marijuana sales have generated.
“What they plan to do is more important than the role they may have played in the past,” said Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert, who welcomes the expanded political support after years of officials lagging far behind voters on the issue.
But the new expressions of support aren’t convincing to some activists — creating a community divide resembling lingering gay-rights qualms about Hillary Clinton, who embraced same-sex marriage ahead of 2016, despite long opposing it, after popular opinion shifted.
“I think they put their fingers in the wind, ... but which of them were talking about if before it became acceptable in the last few years? Not many,” said Douglas Hiatt, a marijuana reform activist and attorney in Washington state.
Hiatt said that selecting a sincere ally is important and that he’s not convinced federal legalization is inevitable, even if 10 states have legalized recreational pot use and national support is now around 60 percent, after crossing into a majority around 2013.
“A lot of people who were around in the ‘70s told me we went through this before. We had a big wave of decriminalization. Lots of states you wouldn’t expect were decriminalizing and things were looking good ... then, boom, the whole thing got turned around in four years and Reagan restarted the war on drugs,” Hiatt said. “Everyone thought it was over.”
When President Ronald Reagan ramped up criminal penalties for drugs, he had a key ally in then-Sen. Biden, the current leader in polls for declared and potential Democratic candidates.
In January, Biden repented for some of his legacy, saying it was “a big mistake” to help in the early '90s establish a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, resulting in lengthy sentences mostly for black men.
The apology was seen by some observers as evidence he plans to run.
Harris, the early leader among declared candidates in polls, announced this week she had smoked marijuana in college and supports legalizing it, on the grounds that “it gives people joy," despite opposing legalization until last year and building a tough-on-drugs reputation as a local prosecutor and state attorney general.
Hiatt said careful review of Harris’ and Klobuchar’s records are likely to reveal people prosecuted for minor marijuana offenses or for playing a minor role in large marijuana-dealing operations.
Adam Eidinger, who led the successful 2014 ballot campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in D.C., is more open-minded about Harris and about Klobuchar, who recently co-sponsored legislation that would allow the states to set their own pot policies. He sees the pair as potential game-changers who can persuade more conservative law enforcement leaders.
“There is an advantage, they know how to talk to other prosecutors … Someone like me wouldn’t be liked by police, necessarily,” said Eidinger, who has organized large public smoke-ins, joint giveaways, and cannabis seed-shares, often resulting in his arrest.
On Biden, Hiatt and Eidinger agree.
“No way, absolutely not, I would not support Biden,” Eidigner said. “Until he sits down with me and begs for my support, I wouldn't support him. I don’t trust him at all — he's someone who could have done something in the vice president's office, and they wouldn't touch it."
Despite tolerating state pot legalization, the Obama administration didn't attempt to change federal law.
Hiatt called Biden a nearly unforgivable "architect" of the nation's toughest anti-drug laws.
Tvert declined to comment specifically on Biden, saying his candidacy was only hypothetical.
Others in the growing Democratic field are longtime friends of pot legalization.
Among declared candidates, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., since 2015 have pushed legislation to federally legalize medical pot.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is the top Democratic sponsor on Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s marijuana federalism bill, which Trump has endorsed. And Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, has long backed legalization.
Among prospective candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is a longtime legalization backer.
Eidinger said it’s not too late for Trump to give Democrats a run for their money, suggesting that he lead a push to federalize pot law. Eidinger sees that reform as a quick step toward allowing interstate commerce.
“If Trump wants to increase his chance of re-election, he really should do legalization at the federal level. He should call the Democrats out,” Eidinger said.