Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg formalized his stance on marijuana Tuesday, calling for decriminalization as part of a broader criminal justice platform. But the paragraph-long marijuana policy leaves a lot of questions about what federal marijuana policy would look like under a Bloomberg administration.
The candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination wants to decriminalize the possession of “small amounts” of marijuana and commute the sentences of certain convictions. The policy brief also says legalization decisions should be left up to states "for the moment” and that a Bloomberg White House would “take public health and safety into account."
The Bloomberg campaign did not respond to questions seeking clarification on how much marijuana it considers to be a “small amount,” when a Bloomberg administration might reconsider its hands-off approach to marijuana sales sanctioned by the states, and how public health and safety considerations would factor into policymaking.
Bloomberg's new position did not call for removing marijuana from the schedule of controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act, which classifies marijuana in the most severe class. His approach is more conservative than any of the other Democratic presidential contenders. All of the candidates except former Vice President Joe Biden have called for that action. Biden has, however, called for legalizing medical marijuana.
Bloomberg's 13-page policy brief on criminal justice called for "further scientific study" into the health effects of marijuana. Federal research is currently curtailed by the drug's Schedule I status.
“There’s a lot of interesting word choice here and not a lot of concrete policy,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a legalization advocacy group.
Given Bloomberg’s prior public statements opposing legalizing both medical and recreational marijuana, pro-marijuana advocates worry that a Bloomberg administration would impede state action toward legalization.
The advocates also point to his tenure as mayor, when 440,000 people were arrested for low-level marijuana possession, according to the pro-legalization group the Drug Policy Alliance. The New York City police force's “stop and frisk” policy under Bloomberg that led to the spike in marijuana-related arrests was predicated on racial profiling, a judge determined in 2013.
“There’s the old saying that ‘when someone shows you who they are, believe them.’ Mike Bloomberg has shown that he is no ally to marijuana reform or criminal justice reform more broadly,” Altieri said.
Presidents can also shape marijuana policy through their budget requests and through leadership of the Department of Justice. For example, President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was a staunch opponent of marijuana and temporarily revoked the Cole memorandum, an Obama administration guidance memo that eased federal crackdowns on marijuana sales in states that have approved them.
Meanwhile, opponents of marijuana legalization with Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, applauded Bloomberg’s approach. The group supports state decriminalization legislation. They say the national decriminalization of marijuana possession would be a meaningful break from the status quo.
“It is refreshing to see a candidate for president take the science-based approach to marijuana policy, rather than tout talking points prepared by Big Marijuana’s lobbyists,” said SAM President Kevin Sabet in a statement.
SAM has been in touch with Bloomberg. The group’s former director of state and local affairs joined Bloomberg’s campaign’s operation in Pennsylvania in January.
In the past, Bloomberg repeatedly voiced skepticism about legalizing marijuana in public interviews, even for medically qualified patients. The former mayor described medical marijuana as “one of the great hoaxes of all time” in a 2013 interview.
Bloomberg’s previous statements against marijuana legalization in any form are at odds with a majority of the electorate. Just 9 percent of people in any party do not support implementing medical marijuana frameworks, according to Pew Research. Eighty-eight percent of Republicans favor legalizing medical marijuana.