Gubernatorial Candidates Make Marijuana A 2017 Campaign Issue

By Tom Angell | August 10, 2017

In a sign of marijuana law reform’s growing political traction, major candidates in gubernatorial elections in states across the country are making legalization, decriminalization and medical cannabis centerpieces of their campaigns.

This is especially true of Democratic candidates, perhaps a reflection of the fact that polls show that their party’s voters are generally much more likely to support marijuana policy reform than are Republicans. But some GOP contenders are also calling for changes to cannabis laws.

There are two gubernatorial races taking place in 2017 — in New Jersey and Virginia — and the Democratic nominees in both have repeatedly pushed for big marijuana law reforms, with their Republican opponents expressing openness to more moderate changes.

And, candidates in several of the many 2018 governors races are already talking about cannabis.

First, a look at the two 2017 races:

In New Jersey, Democratic nominee Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, called for legalization during his primary election night victory speech in June.

“The criminalization of marijuana has only served to clog our courts and cloud people’s futures, so we will legalize marijuana,” he said. “And while there are financial benefits, this is overwhelmingly about doing what is right and just.” He also pledged in the speech to end mass incarceration and “eliminate prisons for profit.”

Murphy’s campaign website says that if elected he will “legalize marijuana so police can focus resources on violent crimes.”

He has also tweeted about the issue several times.

Murphy’s Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadago, doesn’t support legalization, but has called for decriminalization and expansion of the state’s existing medical cannabis program.

“I have personal experience about what exactly happens to somebody who drives while they’re high, which is why I would oppose legalization of marijuana,” she said during a primary debate earlier this year.

“Having said that, however, I completely agree that we should decriminalize it,” she continued. “Because no one should suffer because of the color of their skin or because of their social background or because they were picked up with a small quantity.”

The lieutenant governor also suggested she supports adding new qualifying conditions for medical cannabis. Saying she wants to “streamline” the program, Guadago argued the state should “make it easier for people that have doctors’ notes to get it.”

Current Gov. Chris Christie (R) is one of the nation’s most ardent marijuana law reform opponents in elected office. During the course of his failed 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign he repeatedly pledged that if elected he would vigorously enforce federal prohibition in legalization states, and has been seen as perhaps the sole roadblock to further reform in the Garden State.

State legislative leaders in New Jersey have indicated that they are ready to pass a marijuana legalization bill shortly after a new governor is seated early next year.

In Virginia, Democratic nominee Ralph Northam, currently the state’s lieutenant governor, has made a push to decriminalize cannabis a central part of his campaign messaging, often putting the issue in stark racial justice terms.

“We need to change sentencing laws that disproportionately hurt people of color,” Northam wrote in a blog post. “One of the best ways to do this is to decriminalize marijuana. African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia. The Commonwealth spends more than $67 million on marijuana enforcement — money that could be better spent on rehabilitation.”

Northam has taken to twitter to discuss cannabis issues on numerous occasions.

A medical doctor, Northam also wrote that he’s become “increasingly convinced by the data showing potential health benefits of marijuana,” suggesting he’d sign a comprehensive medical cannabis bill into law.

His campaign even launched an ad about how he helped at least one of his own patients access medical cannabis oil.

This week, the Democrat penned a letter to the Virginia State Crime Commission, which is currently undertaking an examination of potential decriminalization.

“Virginia spends $67 million on marijuana enforcement – enough to open up another 13,000 pre-K spots for children,” he wrote. “African Americans are nearly 3 times as likely to get arrested for simple possession of marijuana and sentencing guidelines that include jail time can all too often begin a dangerous cycle of recidivism.”

Northam also pushed decriminalization and medical cannabis in a recent debate with his opponent, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie.

Gillespie does not support making changes to the state’s marijuana laws at this time but his spokesman said he is “exploring reforms to make sure that penalties align appropriately to the offense committed.”

The Republican also supports industrial hemp, with his campaign saying it is “a cash crop and can be found in a variety of products such as paper construction materials, food, personal care items, rope, canvas and nutritional supplements.”

And, in a Facebook Live chat he said he hasn’t “reached any final conclusions” about medical cannabis but is studying it “very carefully” and is “going to have a policy that I’m going to announce this summer on it.”

“I think there has been a growing case for tightly regulated, strictly regulated medicinal marijuana,” he said.

Unlike Murphy in New Jersey, Northam wouldn’t necessarily find a state legislature that is willing to work with him to pass bold marijuana reforms if he is elected.

The Virginia House of Delegates has a strong Republican majority and, while the partisan divide in the Senate is much narrower, the GOP currently controls that body as well. Marijuana decriminalization legislation was introduced this year, but did not advance. Lawmakers did, however, pass bills to remove the threat of automatic driver’s license suspension for marijuana possession and to allow for in-state production of CBD medical cannabis oil.

Next week, we’ll have a separate post looking at several 2018 candidates who are already making marijuana law reform central to their efforts to get elected to governors’ mansions.

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

Follow MassRoots

Subscribe to the best cannabis news