President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to run the U.S. Department of Commerce is a governor who supports not only legalizing marijuana but selling it through government-run stores.
Biden announced on Friday, January 9, 2021, that Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) is getting the nod for Commerce secretary, a cabinet position where, if confirmed by the Senate, she will be responsible for representing business community interests and promoting economic growth. And while the incoming president might not be in favor of legalization himself, his nominee to lead the country’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has come to embrace the policy change, with a unique twist.
In a budget proposal last year, Raimondo called for a state-run regulatory model for cannabis—rather than allowing sales through a privatized commercial market as is the case in all other states that have legalized to date. Having the government control the industry would “allow the state to control distribution, prevent youth consumption, and protect public health,” her proposal to lawmakers said.
The governor wasn’t always in favor of comprehensive reform, but the spread of the legalization movement regionally in other Northeast states led to her accept the policy change as an inevitability that should be thoughtfully implemented. Her budget plan for cannabis was not adopted by the legislature, however.
In November 2019, Raimondo described legalization as “the next logical step” after the growth of the state’s medical cannabis program. That came after she partnered with nearby states’ governors to develop a regional approach to legalizing cannabis. That year she also included legal cannabis in her budget, but that initial plan did not include the state-run approach that she has come to favor.
“My view: it is only a matter of time,” Raimondo told The Providence Journal last month. “I think we should do it. Yes, I support the state-run model because from all the work we have done it is the most controlled way to do it, arguably the safest, and the way to maximize state revenue.”
Although the would-be commerce secretary wants the government to make money selling marijuana, she is not herself a cannabis enthusiast. She said in an earlier interview that “I’ve never used marijuana. I’ve never smoked. I’ve never vaped,” calling herself a “super boring governor.”
The timeline for Raimondo’s confirmation for the federal role isn’t clear, and so it’s possible she could continue to pursue state-level reform while she’s still serving as governor in the interim. A new upcoming budget request is due in March, and she’s indicated legalization would again be part of that, though it’s not clear how the updated cannabis plan will differ from her last one.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee (D), who will become governor if and when Raimondo vacates the office, said in 2019 that he does not support legalizing marijuana. He is in favor of medical cannabis and decriminalization, however.
It remains to be seen how Raimondo will bring her perspective on the economic benefits of legalizing and regulating marijuana to the Biden administration, but at the very least her nomination represents yet another presumably incoming top administration official whose views on cannabis depart from those of the president-elect, which could collectively influence federal policy.
Biden recently selected a nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D)—who is amenable to reform. And in his role, he could help facilitate federal cannabis rescheduling. While the Justice Department plays a key role in marijuana’s federal scheduling, a medical and scientific review by HHS is binding on the attorney general’s subsequent classification decision.
Raimondo was also considered for the HHS role, but Biden went in a different direction.
The president-elect’s pick for attorney general, Judge Merrick Garland, has not been especially outspoken about his views on marijuana policy. While advocates expressed concern about his comments in a 2012 federal appeals case on marijuana scheduling, he doesn’t appear to have been publicly hostile to a policy change.
In positive news for advocates, Biden is also set to nominate former prosecutor and civil rights activist Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general. She favors cannabis legalization and has strongly condemned harsh criminalization policies for non-violent drug offenses.