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What Does Election 2016 Mean for Marijuana in California?

You could be forgiven if you’ve made a point of avoiding politics this year. The 2016 presidential campaign started ugly and has only gotten worse.

Bernie Sanders, left, and Hillary Clinton
Bernie Sanders, left, and Hillary Clinton

But the implications of the November election could be huge for marijuana in California. Voters are likely to face a stark choice between the Democratic and Republican nominees, and the winner could shape the future of reform for years to come.

So who are the leading candidates, and where do they stand on the future of cannabis law in the Golden State?

There are two candidates on the Democratic side, and so far they’re at a draw. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the favorite to win the nomination, but Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has closed the gap in recent weeks by finishing a close second in the Iowa caucuses and sweeping the New Hampshire primary.

With those two states behind them, Clinton and Sanders are moving on to Nevada, where the contest is close, and South Carolina, where Clinton holds a prohibitive lead. From there, the race could plausibly move in either direction.

Clinton and Sanders support marijuana reform

It matters. Both candidates are progressive, both favor criminal justice reform, and both back marijuana reform. But Sanders wants to go all the way, rescheduling the drug under the Controlled Substances Act and clearing the way for federal legalization.

Hillary, meanwhile, supports medical marijuana and has said she’ll keep her mind open about legalizing the drug for recreation. But she has said she has no plans to push the idea as president.

The good news is, further reform is likely under either a Sanders or a Clinton presidency, and that would only make life easier for California stoners. But there are also concerns about electability. Clinton is widely regarded as a better candidate than Sanders in the general election – though that depends on whom the GOP picks as its nominee.

Trump leading among Republicans

On that side of the aisle, billionaire businessman Donald Trump holds a commanding lead over four other candidates: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Donald Trump, left, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz
Donald Trump, left, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz

Cruz is running second, though he’s more popular in some Southern states than elsewhere. In any event, he’s still viewed as a serious threat to Trump. So is Rubio, even though he has yet to place better than third in a primary or caucus.

Kasich and Bush are almost certainly dead in the water. And that’s too bad, as these would probably be the candidates most sympathetic to legalization proponents.

Cruz, for his part, is a reliable vote against any kind of cannabis reform anywhere in the United States. He’s a deeply conservative, red-meat Republican who appeals to evangelical voters and others on the far right, and that puts him far from the center on legalization.

Rubio, likewise, is a pretty sure bet to oppose the end of prohibition. He has hewed to the right during the campaign, hoping to outflank Cruz and Trump. He hasn’t succeeded yet, and his hopes aren’t especially good, but he’s still a threat to California potheads.

Trump is much harder to read. He has spoken in favor of legalization, and he has spoken against it. His positions depend on the audience, the political timing, and the likely press coverage. In other words, there’s no way to lock him down on reform. He might push for it, he might not. No one really knows.

In the end, a Democratic win in November spells a better future for marijuana policy in California. A GOP victory could set the cause back years. Voters are mad as hell this election season, but it’s still important to back candidates who support the right approach to an ancient problem.

About Matt Brooks

Based in San Francisco, Matt is a journalist who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than five years. He provides regular news coverage on and

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