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2020 Dems back legal marijuana in political sea change

A generation ago, the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonIt's time to fix an important religious freedom law Senators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Edie Falco to play Hillary Clinton in Clinton impeachment series MORE, insisted he had not inhaled marijuana when he smoked in college. 

A decade ago, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhy is Joe Biden dodging the public and the press? Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief Pentagon issues report revealing ex-White House doctor 'belittled' subordinates, violated alcohol policies MORE, the Democratic nominee who hung out with the Choom Gang in high school, offered tepid support for allowing those with medical needs to access marijuana.

Next year, the person who becomes the Democratic nominee against President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE will almost certainly back full-scale federal legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.

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Virtually every major candidate running for president has publicly supported a raft of proposals to legalize marijuana, erase past convictions for minor possession and remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act. 

Even those few who do not back recreational use support measures far more permissive than did Obama when he ran.

It is a sea change of epic proportions, one that mirrors radical reversals in public policy of the recent past like the expansion of multistate lottery games in the 1980s and 1990s or the embrace of same-sex marriage laws in the 2000s and 2010s. 

In all three cases, hesitant politicians who were once loath to take a risky stand found themselves at odds with a more permissive public that no longer found legalization outside the mainstream.

Today, being in favor of marijuana legalization is about more than just appealing to young voters. 

Candidates also use it as a window into conversations about racial justice and criminal justice reform.

“The war on drugs has not been a war on drugs, it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately people of color and low-income individuals,” Sen. Cory BookerCory Booker'Bloody Sunday' to be commemorated for first time without John Lewis It's in America's best interest to lead global COVID-19 vaccine distribution ABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent MORE (D-N.J.) said earlier this year.

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Booker has introduced a measure to legalize marijuana at the federal level and to expunge the records of those who have been charged with using or possessing small amounts of pot. Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandABC names new deputy political director, weekend White House correspondent The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers face Capitol threat as senators line up votes for relief bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate Dems face unity test; Tanden nomination falls MORE (D-N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package It will be Vice (or) President Harris against Gov. DeSantis in 2024 — bet on it Trump sued by Democrat over mob attack on Capitol MORE (D-Calif.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersSinema pushes back on criticism of her vote against minimum wage, implying that it's sexist Biden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package Schumer insists Democrats unified after chaotic coronavirus debate MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate rejects Sanders minimum wage hike Philly city council calls on Biden to 'cancel all student loan debt' in first 100 days Hillicon Valley: High alert as new QAnon date approaches Thursday | Biden signals another reversal from Trump with national security guidance | Parler files a new case MORE (D-Mass.) all support his bill.

Warren has sponsored a measure with Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 MORE (R-Colo.) that would prohibit the federal government from interfering with states where marijuana is now legal. Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: China implicated in Microsoft breach | White House adds Big Tech critic | QAnon unfazed after false prediction FDA signals plan to address toxic elements in baby food Sen. Tina Smith calls for eliminating filibuster MORE (D-Minn.), who has not signed on to Booker’s bill, backs Warren’s measure. 

The language today’s candidates use is also a dramatic departure from the past, when candidates like Clinton distanced themselves from their youthful indiscretions. 

Harris, who acknowledged smoking pot in college, said in one of her first interviews as a candidate that marijuana “gives a lot of people joy, and we need more joy.” 

In an interview on the same radio program, “The Breakfast Club,” Sanders said legalization “will be a major step forward in the struggle for a fairer, less racist criminal justice system.” Booker called for federal legalization in an interview on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show.”

Support for legalization reflects not just a generational change in the Democratic Party, but a personal evolution for several presidential candidates as well.

Then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) both opposed ballot measures to legalize marijuana in their states in 2012. 

After those measures passed, both men worked to set up recreational regimes, and both now support legalization.

In an interview with Time magazine, Hickenlooper called legalization “one of the great social experiments.” In his first press conference as a candidate, Inslee said “it’s about time” for marijuana to become legal at the federal level.

Earlier this year, Inslee granted official pardons to thousands of Washington residents convicted of low-level possession charges.

Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard blasts new House rules on gender neutral language as 'height of hypocrisy' A vaccine, a Burrito and more: 7 lighter, memorable moments from 2020 Growing number of House Republicans warm to proxy voting MORE (D-Hawaii) has sponsored several pro-marijuana bills. Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Md.) co-sponsored bills to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs under the Controlled Substances Act. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has said he supports states legalizing pot.

The Democrat who takes the most conservative line on marijuana is Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSchumer insists Democrats unified after chaotic coronavirus debate Mandel gets Club for Growth nod in Ohio Senate primary Bipartisan bill would ban lawmakers from buying, selling stocks MORE (D-Ohio). Brown told voters in South Carolina last week that he opposes legalization, though he supports decriminalizing it and allowing access for those with medical needs.

Opponents of marijuana legalization hope that the rhetoric is more about appealing to voters on the campaign trail than it is about real policy priorities. 

Kevin Sabet, a former Obama administration official in the Office of National Drug Control Policy who now heads the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said several of the candidates have told him they feel painted into a corner on legalization.

“When [some candidates] talk about marijuana, it is in the context of decriminalization,” Sabet said in an email. “None of them say the marijuana industry is a great thing, and I think that’s a key distinction.”

Even Obama, freed from the burdens of ever having to face voters again, has evolved. 

In an interview with Rolling Stone after the 2016 election, Obama said it would become “untenable” for the Justice Department or the Drug Enforcement Administration “to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that’s legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another.”

“This is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage,” Obama said.

The rapid political evolution on marijuana legalization mirrors the speed with which public opinion changed on lotteries and same-sex marriage in some respects, as societal taboos fell away and polls showed voters accepted change.

But in another sense, support for marijuana legalization has differed from those two issues: This time, voters are the ones giving politicians permission to adapt.

Three decades ago, legislators hungry for new revenue streams expanded lottery games, over the objections of social conservatives. 

Almost two decades ago, courts began allowing same-sex marriage, over the objections of even prominent Democratic politicians. 

Marijuana legalization, by contrast, has been spearheaded by activists who take to the ballot box, where recreational use has now been approved in nine states and the District of Columbia. 

Only one state — Vermont — has legalized marijuana through the legislature, albeit in a very different regulatory structure than the other states.

“We see what happens in the referenda in blue, purple and red states. Voters support it. Not that it is going to be such a persuasive issue, but there is absolutely no negative effect or backlash for supporting legalization,” said Corey Platt, a Democratic strategist running a super PAC that backs Inslee for president. “The base and people in the middle support it. Whenever there is an issue that works for the base and swing voters there is no reason to be against it.”

Today, a majority of Americans back legalizing recreational marijuana. 

A Pew Research Center survey in October found 62 percent of respondents saying marijuana should be legal, including majorities of Democrats and independents. 

A Gallup survey taken around the same time even found a majority of Republican respondents backing legal pot.

The new outlook on marijuana has become so widespread that the eventual Democratic nominee may not even be that far to the left of the man he or she will face in 2020. 

Though President Trump has appointed marijuana hard-liners to some key posts, he has never expressed outright opposition to legalization.

Asked last year how he felt about Warren and Gardner’s bill to protect states that have legalized marijuana, Trump replied: “We’re looking at it. But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”