What to Expect from President Biden’s Cabinet on Cannabis
We’ve highlighted four names from the group President Biden has chosen to shape federal policy under his administration and analyzed what each of their selections might mean for cannabis.
The new administration has been sworn in, the Senate gavel has been passed to the Democrats, and the country’s leadership is almost fully set. One major step remains: the Cabinet nomination and approval process.
As we saw from the previous administration, Cabinet members can have a massive impact on the direction of the country, especially as it relates to cannabis policy. With a thin Democratic majority in Congress and a longtime moderate in the White House, the battle for fair cannabis laws is far from over.
Advocates are now looking to Biden’s Cabinet for clues on how the incoming administration will handle cannabis laws. Like the president they’ll be working under, the group doesn’t have a strong positive or negative stance on the plant. But taking a closer look at the previous records of the cabinet members announced so far can provide clues as to what we can expect from the incoming executive branch on cannabis laws.
Attorney General: Merrick Garland
Before 2021, Garland was best known for being President Obama’s nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court of the United States in 2016. After his Senate hearing was blocked by Republicans, Garland became an early symbol of the kind of Trump-era partisanship that still divides the country today. It appears Garland will get the chance to serve at the highest level of the federal government, but in a different branch: Biden announced his nomination as AG in the first week of January.
Garland, a Democrat who served as Washington, D.C.’s chief judge from 2013 to 2020, hasn’t come out directly against or in favor of cannabis. The closest definitive opinion was in 2013, when the industry trade group Americans for Safe Access sued the Drug Enforcement Administration in an effort to remove cannabis from Schedule I. Garland was one of three D.C. federal judges who ruled in favor of the DEA, on the grounds that they were the ones who had done the research. “We’re not the scientists. They are,” he said during the case’s 2012 hearing.
During his 2016 Supreme Court nomination, some in the media believed his respect for science would lead him to be an ally to the industry—or at least not a direct foe like Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Given the major legislative achievements that have occurred since his SCOTUS nomination, it’s hard to see Garland presiding over a strongly anti-cannabis Department of Justice.
Health and Human Services Secretary: Xavier Becerra
Becerra succeeded now-Vice President Kamala Harris as California attorney general in 2017, after Harris was elected to the Senate. He offers a mixed bag on cannabis as the Golden State’s top cop: As recently as October 2020, his California Department of Justice was putting out press releases touting the destruction of over 1 million marijuana plants and talking about the dangers of illegal grow operations. His office frequently mentions the public safety and environmental threats posed by these underground businesses, often sharing statistics about the number of people they’ve arrested in the state each year.
On the other hand, Becerra has been a staunch defender of California’s right to regulate cannabis its own way. In January 2018, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo that instructed the federal government to take a “hands-off” approach on regulating state cannabis markets, Becerra released a statement proclaiming, “In California we decided it was best to regulate, not criminalize, cannabis. … We intend to vigorously enforce our state’s laws and protect our state’s interests.”
In 2017, Becerra also admitted to having personal experience with marijuana: “Yes, at a younger time, I tried it, yes. Meaning, meaning much younger,” he said. Aside from cannabis, Becerra has been at the forefront of California’s feud with former president Trump: His office filed over 100 lawsuits against the administration preceding the one he’ll work in.
Secretary of Commerce: Gina Raimondo
As the first female governor of Rhode Island, Raimondo led the push for legalization in the smallest state. Her January 2020 proposal went further than most legal-use states, calling for Rhode Island to establish government-run cannabis retailers similar to how alcohol is sold in some states. It was the second time she attempted to legalize in the state—the initial effort in 2019 wasn’t accepted by lawmakers.
Raimondo would take the office with her work cut out for her, as the country faces its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and ongoing closures related to COVID-19. Asked about Rhode Island’s push to legalize in a December 2020 interview, she said: “My view: it is only a matter of time. I think we should do it.” It’s tough to imagine Raimondo not bringing her pro-cannabis attitude into a federal government that will start 2021 with a soaring deficit and millions of people in need of economic aid.
Assistant Secretary of Health: Dr. Rachel Levine
Dr. Levine has been Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health since 2017. In 2020, she was praised in the media for her handling of the state’s coronavirus crisis—the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called her the “calm in the eye of the COVID-19 storm.” Dr. Levine has also been a leader in the growth of Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program over the last few years. In 2019, she expanded the list of qualifying conditions to include anxiety and Tourette’s syndrome. When the pandemic began in March, she loosened restrictions on medical marijuana caregivers to ensure all patients could still access their medicine despite statewide stay-at-home orders.
In a statement congratulating Dr. Levine on her nomination to serve as Assistant Secretary, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf called her “instrumental in establishing the state’s medical marijuana program.” Aside from her work in medical cannabis, Dr. Levine is noteworthy for being the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a cabinet position. If approved, she would be the highest-ranking transgender person to ever serve in federal government.
What comes next?
All of these Cabinet nominees must still be confirmed by the Senate, which is split 50-50 between the parties. Democrats have the tie breaking vote now that Vice President Harris has been sworn in and will preside over the Senate, but the partisanship and divisiveness of the Trump era will hang over the nomination process, which is expected to continue through the month.
Although these men and women will have a significant impact on cannabis policy in 2021 and beyond, like the president they’ll be working for, they’ve shown a long-running deference to the will of constituents and Congress. They may not be zealous advocates of the fight to legalize, but none has signaled willingness to block state-level cannabis measures or expand federal enforcement of outdated prohibition laws.