What's at Stake for Marijuana in the 2020 Election

A voter's guide.

marijuana election november 2020
(Image credit: Hanna Varady/Getty)

With everything that's been going on in 2020, marijuana legalization (opens in new tab) and decriminalization may not be top of mind. Yet the topic goes hand-in-hand with criminal justice reform, and more Americans than ever before support marijuana's legalization. (opens in new tab) If you're wondering where marijuana stands in the 2020 election—specifically, where presidential candidates stand on legalization and decriminalization, and what measures are on the ballot in which states—consider this your guide.

Which states have marijuana measures on the ballot this year?

Per Leafly, the largest online marijuana resource in the country, which boasts an extensive guide (opens in new tab) to each measure, there are six states voting on marijuana legislation this year:

Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota will vote on whether adult-only recreational marijuana becomes legal in that state.

Mississippi and South Dakota will vote on whether to legalize medical marijuana.

Why does it matter?

Even if you're not personally interested in partaking, the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana has far-reaching impacts.

The first thing to know: There's a difference between decriminalization and legalization. (opens in new tab) Decriminalization means that instead of jail time, law enforcement may only use fines, education, and treatment as methods of prosecution. Decriminalization would also expunge the convictions of people arrested for cannabis use, at least under Joe Biden's proposed plan. Marijuana can still remain illegal with decriminalization, whereas legalization would allow for marijuana to be treated in much the same way as alcohol or nicotine—with restrictions, but legal to use.

The legalization marijuana is a particularly important issue for young voters and other key demographics. It's also a key issue in states that really matter to the 2020 election—including Florida and Colorado. But on a larger, more critical level, decriminalizing marijuana would contribute to criminal justice reform and begin to undo some of the injustices that have specifically and repeatedly targeted Black people (opens in new tab). The badly misnamed and ultimately failed "War on Drugs," espoused and strengthened by Presidents Nixon and Reagan, had a particularly negative impact on Black Americans.

Today, of all non-violent arrests (1.5 million a year), just under half are for marijuana. Resources don't exist to prosecute all 17 million marijuana users, and selective prosecution takes place along racial lines. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws can lead to long jail times for small amounts of marijuana. Schools and workplaces also include marijuana in their drug tests, which means that the impact of criminalization extend far beyond the courtroom.

The current administration continues to blame legal marijuana for causing violent crime (opens in new tab), when the opposite has been shown to be true (opens in new tab).

What's Joe Biden's position on marijuana?

In 1994, Biden supported the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (opens in new tab), a controversial (opens in new tab) bill that activists say contributed to more aggressive policing and mass incarceration. But in the intervening years, he has diverged from that perspective and Biden is now even more progressive than Obama was on the subject.

Biden doesn't favor a legalization bill (opens in new tab), but not because he favors stricter drug laws. It's apparently all about public health, and the research he feels needs to be done to ensure it's safe. That said, Biden has been in favor of decriminalization and removing marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic—the same category as heroin and ecstasy—and treating it in the same terms as alcohol and nicotine. He's also in favor of legalizing medical marijuana (opens in new tab) at the federal level and allowing states to determine their own policy.

At the vice presidential debate, Harris stated that a Biden-Harris administration will decriminalize marijuana.

Where does Donald Trump stand on marijuana?

After initially saying (opens in new tab) he would leave marijuana legalization to the states while campaigning in 2016, Trump's administration has taken a severe anti-marijuana stance, stating that it should be illegal at the federal level.

The 2021 fiscal budget proposal (opens in new tab) advocated removing protection for state medical marijuana laws, and the administration repealed a policy (opens in new tab) that keeps federal prosecutors away from prosecuting in states that had legalized marijuana. Now, if you're in a state that has legalized marijuana, you could conceivably still be prosecuted.

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Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.