How cannabis-friendly are potential Biden successors?

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Exterior image of the White House

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U.S. President Joe Biden, whose October 2022 executive order launched marijuana rescheduling, the most significant shift in federal cannabis policy in 50 years, will be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president.

At least, that’s what Biden has said repeatedly since his performance in a June 27 debate against presumptive Republican challenger and former President Donald Trump heightened concerns about the 81-year-old incumbent’s age and mental acuity.

A miniature revolt ensued among donors and major Democratic Party figures, some of whom are considering possible replacements amid concerning poll numbers that suggest Trump could win a second nonconsecutive term handily.

Biden rejects calls to step down

Despite public calls for Biden to drop out of the race, he says he is staying in.

He said it Friday during a rare prime-time interview on ABC News in which he blamed the “bad night” of the debate on a cold, plus exhaustion.

He said it again Monday morning – twice – while calling into the MSNBC show Morning Joe and repeating the vow in a letter circulated to congressional Democrats.

“I want you to know that despite all the speculation in the press and elsewhere, I am firmly committed to staying in this race, to running this race to the end, and to beating Donald Trump,” Biden wrote in the letter.

“Any weakening of resolve or lack of clarity about the task ahead only helps Trump and hurts us.”

Potential Biden replacements

But some major Democrats still are hedging their bets, worried that if Biden loses, Trump could torch the president’s legacy – including marijuana rescheduling.

If Biden does change his mind and bows out, who are candidates to replace him on the Democratic ticket? And what are their records on marijuana?

Vice President Kamala Harris

The most likely successor is Vice President Kamala Harris, whose relatively quiet tenure as Biden’s designated successor follows turns as a U.S. senator, California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney.

While some critics claimed Harris’ record as district attorney showed her support for the war on drugs, the VP has since embraced the Biden administration’s line that federal marijuana policy has been a costly failure.

She’s also repeatedly touted the executive orders rescheduling marijuana and expanding pardons for nonviolent federal marijuana offenses as proof of the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to tangible criminal justice reform.

There seems little doubt that a President Harris would build on marijuana rescheduling, which promises to unlock profound tax benefits for the $36 billion U.S. marijuana industry.

In contrast, Trump has said very little.

Instead, perceived surrogates such as former Attorney General Bill Barr have spoken out against rescheduling, leading to concerns that a Trump administration would roll back rescheduling along with other Biden-era reforms.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom

Also on the shortlist is California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Owing to his full-throated support for recreational marijuana legalization dating to 2012 and his campaigning for California’s 2016 adult-use ballot initiative, Newsom could be seen as the most cannabis-friendly Democrat on the party’s roster.

That would be despite California’s struggling regulated cannabis industry and gripes from licensed operators that excessive taxes and onerous regulations continue to strangle what should be the country’s strongest legal market.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Recent headlines claiming Michigan’s regulated cannabis industry is bigger than California’s highlight that legal marijuana is strong and entrenched around the Great Lakes.

And Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has played a role in that.

It was Whitmer who cleaned house, dissolving the corrupt Michigan Marihuana Licensing Board shortly after taking office in 2019.

And it was Whitmer who signed into law tougher regulations for intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoids in July 2021.

But Whitmer on Monday tossed cold water on the Biden succession rumors, telling the Associated Press that such talk is a distraction.

But she does lead a longtime Democratic Party stronghold in Michigan, where Trump won in 2016 and support for Biden is flagging among Arab Americans because of U.S. support for the war in Gaza.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear

Deeper on the bench but appealing to strategists concerned with winning over independent voters are Democratic governors representing swing-states or red states.

That would include Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, both of whom have demonstrated themselves to be cannabis-friendly.

Partisan gridlock is bottling up adult-use legalization bills in the Pennsylvania Legislature, where Republicans in the state Senate have said they won’t consider marijuana reform until the federal government changes its tune.

But Shapiro’s position is clear: His annual budget address in February banked on $250 million in revenue from regulated cannabis taxed at 20%.

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While totally aspirational, that steep levy will spook state-licensed operators, but Shapiro’s overall message on marijuana – it’s here, it’s legal – is a welcome vibe shift from the obstinacy and obstructionism of the recent past.

In Kentucky – which has sent Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, a frequent foil for Democratic leaders and one of the credited assassins of the SAFE Banking Act, to Washington, D.C., since 1985 – the medical marijuana licensing process began July 1, following an MMJ bill that Beshear signed into law in March 2023.

In a sign of how that went over with Kentucky’s reliably Republican voting record in presidential races, Beshear was reelected last fall by a wider margin than his initial 2019 win.

The state also has regulated hemp-derived cannabinoids under a bill Beshear signed into law last year.

Kentucky law forbids a governor from serving a third consecutive four-year term, so Beshear will need to seek another office if he wants to continue his political career.

But he’s already nixed the idea of running for McConnell’s seat in 2026.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker

Also coming up in conversation is another avowed marijuana legalization supporter: Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker.

The independently wealthy governor, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, might not convincingly critique income inequality or malign the influence of billionaires, as Biden has recently done.

But Pritzker is clear on marijuana: He pitched legalization in 2018, and after signing a bill into law that launched sales in 2020, he has proudly touted a statewide industry that’s grown every year since.

Chris Roberts can be reached at chris.roberts@mjbizdaily.com.