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Power Up: Democrats are unafraid to inhale in 2020's Pot Primary

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Outside the Beltway

🍃 THE GREEN WAVE 🍃: The Green New Deal is not the only colorful subject this election cycle. The issue of whether to legalize marijuana has seeped into the 2020 conversation, evolving from being an untouchable (or rather, un-inhalable) subject to the latest litmus test for a swath of young and diverse Democratic candidates running to topple President Trump in 2020. And for good reason:

  • “Six-in-ten Americans (62%) say the use of marijuana should be legalized, reflecting a steady increase over the past decade,” according to an October 2018 Pew research poll
  • “A majority (60%) of voters in swing districts supports legalizing the use of marijuana, including 45% who support it strongly,” according to a Lake Research Partners 2018 midterm poll. “Younger voters and Democrats are the strongest supporters of legalization. Support is also very strong with potential swing voters including independent-leaning white non-college men and women.”
  • “Among Americans, you get anywhere from 60 — 68 percent support for legalization — and that includes Republicans,” John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on state and federal marijuana policy, told Power Up. “When you get to Democrats, you’re looking at 75 percent range or higher. And if this party is intent on getting younger voters out to vote, that primary electorate becomes even more passionate and favorable to the issue. You’re getting to the 80 percent range among millennials.”
  • (The issue was also a winner during November's midterm elections). 

#CJR: The issue has also become an entry point for Democratic candidates to have serious conversations with voters about criminal justice reform, an issue animating progressives. “If you step back for a second as a political candidate, and think about it, should we be countenancing a system that punishes you for something that is not really harmful at all but then hangs the yoke of that punishment over your neck in perpetuity?," Vincent Southerland, the executive director of New York University's law school's Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, told Power Up. 

  • “I don’t know if legalization is 100 percent a prerequisite to having a robust criminal justice reform agenda, but I don't see how you can ignore what we are seeing generally across the country, which is a movement to legalize marijuana from state to state, an effort to repair the harm that was wrought from it's prohibition in communities of color, and not give any thought to that as a potential path to try and relieve that harm and feel your criminal justice reform platform is fully formed and an effective means of advancing the ball in that space,” Vincent said.

WHERE THEY STAND: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was the first major party candidate to indicate support for a pathway to federal legalization of pot in the 2016 primary. But other Democrats are now eagerly following suit. Most 2020 candidates and prospective contenders have embraced legalizing marijuana use, with the exception of Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Joe Biden. Klobuchar's campaign did not get back to us on whether or not she now supports legalizing recreational marijuana use on the federal level.

President Trump wants to leave legalization up to the states, though his Justice Department under ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions pursued the opposite course.

  • Sanders: The Democratic socialist hails from one of the most liberal states in the country — Vermont legalized the use of recreational marijuana in 2019. Sanders has worked on reforming marijuana laws for decades. “He was the first major presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization during his last bid and, in 2015, filed the first-ever Senate bill to end federal cannabis prohibition,” per Marijuana Moment's Kyle Jaeger.  
  • Cory Booker: The New Jersey senator raised the issue of “ending prohibition against marijuana” in his first interview after his 2020 announcement while discussing criminal justice reform on the Tom Joyner morning show, saying: “Black folks, who are no different in their usage rates, or even the dealing rate . . . are almost four times more likely to be incarcerated for marijuana. We do not have equal justice under the law.”
  • Booker introduced the 2017 Marijuana Justice Act, which aims to both legalize the drug at the federal level and expunges prior convictions. The proposal was hailed as the first of its kind and Sanders, along with other 2020 candidate-Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Kristin Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) all co-sponsored the legislation. Brown and Klobuchar did not. 
  • Harris: “Let me just make this statement very clearly: I believe we need to legalize marijuana,” Harris said on “The Breakfast Club” morning radio show. “Half my family's from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?” Harris responded when asked if she was opposed to legalization of the drug (a comment that did not thrill her father).  
  • However, the former prosecutor “was opposed to 2010 legislation that would have legalized pot in California” and in 2015, called for an end to the federal ban on medical marijuana but not recreational legalization. “She carries baggage on the issue as the former attorney general of California . . . a lot of cannabis activists have closed the door on her,” Hudak told us. 
  • Warren: The Massachusetts senator, notably, is the only 2020-er who has bipartisan cred on the issue by way of co-sponsoring legislation with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) removing weed from the Controlled Substances Act and allowing states to determine their own course on whether to legalize pot. She's also signed onto Booker's measure and has been one of the most vocal lawmakers pushing for legalization (Massachusetts voted for recreational legalization in 2016.) 
  • Gillibrand: The New York senator has been outspoken on the need for marijuana legislation as a part of criminal justice reform efforts. 
  • Tulsi Gabbard: “Whether an individual chooses to use marijuana or not should be treated the same as whether they choose to use alcohol or tobacco,” according to the Hawaii Democratic lawmaker's campaign website. “With the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, we can begin to rectify decades of misguided law enforcement policy and focus on solutions.”

Candidates like Klobuchar, and prospective ones like Brown and Biden, might face issues with the pro-cannabis electorate, according to cannabis advocates and experts we spoke with.

  • Biden helped pass the 1994 crime bill and didn't support legalization while he served as vice president.
  • "[K]lobuchar has no real record on marijuana reform and hasn’t been a leader on the issue in her time on the Senate,” Erik Altieri of NORML told us. “Joe Biden was an architect of mandatory minimum sentences . . . He clearly has begun to move away from some of his previous stances but his record is what his record is and that could come back to harm him should he run.”  
  • "[B]rown will need to explain his position — this will be an issue that candidates will not be able to escape,” Hudak told us. “I do think even candidates who are perhaps privately or previously wary of legalization will be moved to the left on it.”
  • “To me if you're not able to get your head around the fact that legalization is a step forward and alleviates some of the harms done to communities of color, then I think you're living a few paces behind on where our society is going,” Southerland told us. 

UPDATE: Klobuchar wrote in to Power Up with a statement this morning: "I support the legalization of marijuana and believe that states should have the right to determine the best approach to marijuana within their borders."

Sample campaign trail question & answer: 


N.C. VOTES.... AGAIN: My colleague Amy Gardner, who has been all over this story, reports that election officials in North Carolina have ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District, "ending a dramatic months-long investigation into allegations of widespread ballot-tampering and potentially refocusing the national debate about election fraud."

  • "The board voted unanimously to throw out the November results between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready after Harris, an evangelical minister from Charlotte, admitted under oath that he was mistaken in his testimony earlier in the day. Harris blamed the error on a recent sepsis infection that he said caused two strokes and affected his memory," Gardner reports.
  • Reminder: "Harris was under scrutiny for hiring a political operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, who allegedly assembled a crew of election workers to illegally collect, fill out and forge mail-in ballots in two rural counties in the 9th District."
  • Key: “This case told a very well-sourced story about how election fraud changes a community, exploits a community and can lock in deeply problematic leadership,” said Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections. “It doesn’t scale much bigger than Congress, and if it does, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

What's next? McCready has already started to prepare for a new election. But Harris appears less likely to run again due to health concerns. The board will soon set a new date for the elections, including primaries. 


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The Investigations

GAGGED: U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson slapped a full gag order on Roger Stone on Thursday. 

  • The key quote: “No, Mr. Stone, I’m not giving you another chance. I have serious doubts about whether you’ve learned any lesson at all,” Berman Jackson told Stone at the end of a 90-minute hearing  called after Stone Instagrammed an image of the judge with what appeared to be crosshairs in the background. 
  • Terms of the order: " . . . Stone can’t make any public comments of any kind about the charges he’s facing from the special counsel, which include lying to Congress and witness tampering. He’s also banned from social media posts or speaking through surrogates about his case,” report Politico's Darren Samuelsohn, Josh Gerstein, and Matthew Choi.  
  • Stone apologized: “I recognize that I let the court down. I let you down. I let myself down. I let my family down. I let my attorneys down. I can only say I’m sorry. It was a momentary lapse in judgment. Perhaps I talk too much,” Stone said. He also claimed he didn't know the crosshairs were in the photo and said he thought the symbol was actually a Celtic cross.
  • Jackson did not seem to believe him: “There’s nothing ambiguous about crosshairs,” she said.

ACOSTA IN TROUBLE?: The Miami Herald's intrepid Julie Brown broke the news that “Federal prosecutors, under former Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, broke the law when they concealed a plea agreement from more than 30 underage victims who had been sexually abused by wealthy New York hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein, a federal judge ruled Thursday.”

Acosta, currently Trump's Labor secretary, allowed Epstein to "quietly plead guilty in state court to two prostitution charges," instead of prosecuting him under federal sex trafficking laws. An Acosta spokesperson provided Brown with the below statement: 

  • “For more than a decade, the actions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida in this case have been defended by the Department of Justice in litigation across three administrations and several attorneys general. The office’s decisions were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures. This matter remains in litigation and, thus, for any further comment we refer you to the Department of Justice.”

It's unclear whether DOJ will reopen the case. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has asked the department to review Epstein's plea deal. 

  • “The fact that it’s taken this long to get this far is heartbreaking and infuriating,’’ Sasse told Brown. “The Department of Justice should use this opportunity to reopen its non-prosecution agreement so that Epstein and anyone else who abused these children are held accountable.”

ICYMI: Read the three-part series published by the Herald leading up to this decision that “detailed how federal prosecutors collaborated with Epstein’s lawyers to arrange the deal, then hid it from his victims and the public so that no one would know the full scope of Epstein’s crimes and who else was involved.”

At the White House

"BIG PROGRESS": Trump will this afternoon meet with China's top trade negotiator, Vice Premier Liu He, ahead of a March 1 deadline to come to an agreement before U.S. tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods are raised from 10 to 25 perent.

  • The meeting signals some progress between the two sides as Trump's advisers attempt to "trying to secure firm commitments from Beijing to purchase more American products, prevent currency manipulation and end its practice of forcing American companies to hand over valuable technology," per the New York Times's Ana Swanson and Alan Rappeport. 

On Thursday, after top-level meetings in Washington, it appeared that negotiators are working on "memorandums of understanding that would form the basis of a final deal," per Bloomberg's Jenny Leonard and Jennifer Jacobs"The MoUs would cover areas including agriculture, non-tariff barriers, services, technology transfer and intellectual property, according to a person briefed on the talks."

But this is still Trump's White House and anything could happen. "So far, the Chinese have largely reiterated promises to allow foreign car companies and banks freer access to the Chinese market and to increase purchases of American goods, including soybeans and semiconductors," per Swanson and Rappeport

  • "In recent meetings, the Chinese made only vague commitments on structural issues, including protecting intellectual property and paring back heavy subsidies to state-owned enterprises, said William Reinsch, a former United States trade official and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies," the Times reports. 
  • Complicating factors, Trump has recently said that the trade dispute might blow past the March deadline.

Market players are watching closely: "Optimism has risen over the chances of both countries securing a deal to end their protracted trade war, but some experts say the most difficult part is yet to come as high level talks continue into Friday," CNBC's Ryan Browne writes. 

  • Key: An unsigned editorial from the Global Times, one of China's state-run newspapers, writes that "if the two countries couldn't come to an agreement, and as a result the US imposes more tariffs on Chinese products while China responds with fiercer countermeasures, it would be a catastrophic strike to global stock markets." 
  • Leverage: "The editorial’s emphasis on the stock market may signal that Chinese officials see Trump’s touting of Wall Street’s performance during his time in office as a source of leverage. Some investors and traders have argued that administration officials have shown an undue sensitivity to stock-market gyrations by rushing to reassure investors over the status of the trade talks during market declines," MarketWatch's William Watts writes. 

In the Media