How the 2020 presidential election affects cannabis reform and legalization

By Elena Schmidt

Following the presidential election, 1 in 3 Americans lives in a place where recreational cannabis is legal. Nearly 3 out of 4 live in a medical-use state. And two-thirds, regardless of their location, support federal cannabis legalization. If you’re one of those Americans, you probably want to know what President-elect Joe Biden and VP-elect Kamala Harris will do next.

As it stands, Biden and Harris support decriminalization but have sent mixed messages on their reform agenda. Moreover, cannabis legalization does not appear on the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) 2020 platform. So, will a Biden Harris administration push a progressive marijuana agenda? Or will you face four more years of states-legislation-as usual?

Here we dive into cannabis’ big wins this election and its ongoing fight for federal legalization.

State wins for recreational cannabis

If legislators carry out their voters’ will, adult-use cannabis will be legal in four new states following the 2020 election. That brings your total of recreational states to 15, plus the District of Columbia (D.C.).

The breakdown:

  1. Arizona: 60% of voters said yes to Proposition 207. Four years ago, a similar bill failed.
  2. Montana: By a 57/33 margin, Montanans voted in support of Initiative 1-90.
  3. New Jersey: As the first state in the Mid-Atlantic to approve recreational Marijuana (Public Question 1), New Jersey may be setting the stage for New York to follow suit.
  4. South Dakota: Residents of this heartland state voted yes to Constitutional Amendment A by a narrow margin of 54/46.

State wins for medicinal cannabis

After South Dakota and Mississippi’s recent vote, 35 states plus D.C. may soon offer medical cannabis.

The breakdown:

  1. South Dakota: Just a few weeks ago, legal cannabis had no presence in the state. Following the 2020 election, South Dakota not only caught up, but it also blazed right past the majority of states by legalizing recreational and medicinal use.
  2. Mississippi: This deep south state has experienced years of cannabis repression. But today is a new day, as more than 2/3s of voters said yes to medical marijuana.

Federal legalization under President Joe Biden: Will he make it happen?

Biden has been clear that he does not support the federal legalization of adult-use cannabis. He prefers to leave those decisions to the states.

During his campaign, Biden issued promises to promote equal justice by decriminalizing cannabis, expunging conviction records, supporting medical legalization, and declassifying marijuana to a schedule II substance. But he didn’t include supporting verbiage in his recent racial justice agenda to indicate he would prioritize those actions. Moreover, Biden supports controversial “drug courts,” which mandate fines and drug treatment therapy for offenders.

Could Kamala Harris’s support for cannabis legalization make a difference?

Kamala Harris’s view on cannabis legalization

In 2019, Harris supported cannabis legalization legislation that is now going through congressional approval. And in the recent democratic primary race, Kamala was vocal about her support of the issue. However, when Harris became Biden’s V.P., she toned down the rhetoric significantly. Today, Harris stands by Joe Biden’s side in support of expungements and decriminalization–not legalization.

Decriminalization vs. legalization

Decriminalization of cannabis in the U.S. would mean you can’t face criminal charges for the offense. However, you may still receive a citation and face obligatory drug treatment.


Legalization of cannabis means you would have the freedom to buy marijuana from sanctioned businesses and consume it at-will without consequences.

2021 marijuana decriminalization prospects

Biden and Kamala’s decriminalization agenda is a step in the right direction, considering Trump’s silence on the topic. But Congress is already moving forward with a decriminalization bill, known as the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act. Regardless of Biden’s support, the bill faces an uphill battle marked by the conservative opposition and democratic hesitation.

Congress was supposed to vote on the Act in September, but after moderate democrats stalled, so did the vote. The new timeline is this December.

Assuming the issue comes to a vote and passes through the House of Representatives. The bill must make it past the Senate gatekeeper, Mitch McConnel, who is staunchly against marijuana legalization. If McConnel lets the bill through, it must then receive a simple majority vote in the Senate. As it stands today, the Senate will either be split 50/50 or slightly in favor of conservatives. Those odds make it challenging to pass progressive marijuana drug policy reform.

Biden’s executive powers to change marijuana policy

Luckily, Biden and Harris have executive powers that allow them to bypass Congress and the Senate. For instance, Biden can technically reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act through an executive order. This reclassification would allow researchers like our team at Tikun Olam to study cannabis’ medicinal value at labs in the U.S. The president also has the authority to pardon people with federal marijuana convictions.

In the meantime

The Biden administration remains misaligned with U.S. voters and members of his party who seek to pass federal marijuana legalization. That said, Biden’s support for decriminalization and choice of a highly progressive V.P. shows an openness to shifting his position in favor of the majority. Until then, cannabis reform remains a state’s game, and every local election is a new opportunity to give millions more adults and patients access to this life-changing substance.