Could Trump Pull a ‘Cannabis Surprise’ in 2020? It’s Not Impossible

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Trump loathes cannabis, but could promise to legalize if he thinks it’ll gain him a few points in Nov. 2020. (Andrew Harnik/AP

Every September the folks at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the nation’s oldest cannabis legalization group, bring lobbyists, political scientists, reporters, organizers, state lawmakers, and members of Congress together in Washington, DC, to talk shop. Wins and losses are tallied, strategies are debated, the year ahead is forecast. The three-day event always offers a bracing, concentrated blast of both hope and cold reality.

Here’s a report from the front—or, what you need to know as Congress winds down its long summer vacation.

Change, Fast and Slow

Some things are changing quickly. Justin Strekal, NORML’s rumpled and brilliant political director, noted that “when I started doing this three years ago, there were six paid industry lobbyists working marijuana policy on the Hill. Now there are over 60.”Trump will do anything to get re-elected. If he senses a couple percentage points in a legalization pivot, he just might jump on it.

Other things move glacially—which isn’t all bad. Glaciers move slowly, but they always grind forward. When asked to predict when Congress might finally end federal cannabis prohibition, the most optimistic answer was the year 2021. “Not this year, not 2020,” said Amber Littlejohn, senior policy advisor at the Minority Cannabis Business Association. “We’re looking at two to three years, maybe longer.”

If it happens, it’ll likely be in the year “before the 2024 election,” said Michelle Rutter, congressional lobbyist for the National Cannabis Business Association (NCIA). “A lot hinges on what happens in the Senate.”

The Trump Factor

Kris Krane, founder of 4Front Ventures and one of the advocates behind Massachusetts legalization, threw out a wild card. “There’s a potential X factor here,” he said. “I still think  there’s a plausible possibility that President Trump will come out in support of cannabis reform in 2020.” Why? “Because it would be smart political strategy for him to do so.”

Krane’s theory rides on the rising tide of national polls showing support for full legalization at 65% to 68%. The political strategy makes even more sense if Joe Biden claims the Democratic nomination. Biden, a notorious 1990s drug warrior, remains the only Democratic primary contender who refuses to embrace legalization. “Joe Biden,” noted NORML’s Justin Strekal, “is to the political right of every Republican on the House Judiciary Committee on this issue.”

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