Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R)—who previously served as the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a top Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official and in Congress—is running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. At each stage of his career, Hutchinson has proudly and unyieldingly embraced the war on drugs and opposed marijuana legalization.
Of particular concern for drug policy reformers is Hutchinson’s past record of enforcing federal prohibition in legal states and proactively campaigning against legalization.
At a time when drug policy reform is becoming increasingly bipartisan, the candidate’s hardline positions on the issue make him stand out even compared to other GOP presidential hopefuls. That includes former President Donald Trump, who announced that he’d run again late last year, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who entered the race in February.
While Hutchinson did use executive authority to grant pardons to people with certain drug convictions as governor—and he’s expressed interest for modest proposals like expanding treatment resources in prisons and eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine—his record and comments paint a clear and convincing picture of a decades-long drug warrior who would be unlikely to evolve meaningfully on the issue of cannabis legalization if elected.
Here’s where Republican presidential candidate Asa Hutchinson stands on marijuana:
Legislation And Policy Actions
During his time as DEA administrator from 2001 to 2003, Hutchinson earned the ire of advocates for authorizing federal raids against state-legal medical cannabis providers in several California jurisdictions, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Humboldt County, El Dorado County and Ventura County.
According to NORML, DEA took enforcement action against “more than 35 medicinal marijuana patients, cooperatives and providers in California” over the span of about a year, prompting the state attorney general to request a meeting with Hutchinson and leading several cities to consider enacting policies restricting cooperation with the federal agency.
Hutchinson was challenged over the enforcement actions at a California event in 2002, but he dismissed protestors and critics, stating that “DEA must simply follow the law” and those who were being prosecuted were “major traffickers.”
In response to the raids, advocates filed a federal lawsuit against DEA alleging that the actions represented unconstitutional overreach. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, after Hutchinson had left office, with justices ruling that the federal government is within its right to enforce prohibition even in states where patients are permitted to cultivate medical cannabis.
Hutchinson was also leading the agency when a federal appeals court ruled in 2002 that the federal government can’t penalize doctors who discuss medical cannabis with their patients. As DEA administration, he was a defendant in the case.
“As long as marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance, [DEA] will continue its enforcement efforts targeting groups and individuals involved in its distribution,” Hutchinson wrote in a 2002 letter to California’s then-attorney general Bill Lockyer.
Several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation implored the administrator to process a university professor’s application to cultivate cannabis for research purposes that he submitted in 2001 and generally arguing in favor of allowing privately funded institutions to study marijuana.
“For more than 30 years, the University of Mississippi has produced an adequate supply to meet the entire United States demand for research-grade marijuana,” Hutchinson said in a response letter to the lawmakers. “There is no indication that this supply is currently inadequate or will become inadequate in the future.”
The then-administrator did allow DEA to authorize a study on possible therapeutic uses of cannabis shortly into his tenure in 2001, saying that “the question of whether marijuana has any legitimate medical purpose should be determined by sound science and medicine.”
Hutchinson’s DEA initiated a crackdown on hemp seed in 2001, asserting that federal law prohibits the non-intoxicating product from being used in food items. The declaration prompted litigation, which eventually landed in a federal appeals court that overturned the hemp ban in 2004.
After leaving office, Hutchinson joined eight other former DEA administrators in submitting an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to intervene in the implementation of one of the nation’s first recreational marijuana markets in Colorado.
Prior to becoming governor, the official and seven other former DEA chiefs also implored the U.S. attorney general in 2013 to nullify the legalization laws that were going into effect in Colorado and Washington State.
“Each of us, upon becoming administrators of the Drug Enforcement Administration, took an oath of office to uphold and defend the Constitution. While we may no longer be in public service, our personal commitment to this goal and to the responsibility to uphold the law remains undiminished,” he and other former administrators wrote in an op-ed opposing a cannabis legalization proposition in California in 2010.
Hutchinson’s reputation as a drug warrior didn’t get its start at DEA; he made his views abundantly clear during his time representing Arkansas in Congress, urging resistance to reform and backing various pieces of anti-drug legislation.
While he didn’t lead any particular marijuana-focused measures as chief sponsor, he did sign on as cosponsor of a series of resolutions and bills that advanced an anti-cannabis narrative. For example, he cosponsored a joint resolution in 1998 that expresses “the sense of Congress that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medicinal use.”
That passed the House, but it did not advance in the Senate. A separate House resolution with the same intent that the congressman cosponsored was put on the floor calendar but didn’t end up moving further.
Another measure that Hutchinson put his name on was meant to convey the House’s commitment to “winning the war on drugs to protect our children.” It stalled in the chamber.
Hutchinson was among those who voted against a House-passed bill in 1999 that sought to limit federal asset forfeiture power, saying that Americans “don’t want to grant extraordinary protection to the financial henchmen of drug lords.” He proposed a more narrowly tailored alternative that the Clinton administration backed, but that failed.
While Hutchinson opposed the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana legalization law, as governor he did allow multiples pieces of legislation to be enacted amending the program.
For example, he signed two bills in 2017 that delayed the implementation of the cannabis program to give regulators more time for rulemaking and strike language from the bill that required a doctor’s medical marijuana recommendation to say that the benefits of cannabis outweigh the negative effects.
He also signed legislation the same year that prohibits members of the Arkansas National Guard or U.S. military from participating in the state medical cannabis program as patients or caregivers.
Further, the governor put into law a measure that revises employment-related language, clarifying the right of employers to maintain drug-free workplaces, test applicants and workers for THC and penalize those who are suspected of being intoxicated from cannabis on the job.
Other bills that went into effect under Hutchinson include measures to ban marijuana in food and drinks, allow doctors from issuing cannabis recommendations via telemedicine, create an industrial hemp program, revise cannabis packaging requirements, change how marijuana tax revenue is allocated and expand reciprocity for out-of-state patients, among other reforms.
Hutchinson also used executive authority as governor to grant pardons to certain people with drug convictions, including those involving marijuana.
In addition to opposing the medical cannabis legalization ballot initiative that voters approved in 2016, he also campaigned against an adult-use legalization measure that voters defeated in 2022.
DHS Undersecretary: 2003-2005
The then-undersecretary closely monitored international cannabis reform developments and cautioned about border enforcement implications of legalization or decriminalization outside of the U.S.
“We have great respect for Canada and Britain as well, and if they start shifting policies with regards to marijuana, it simply increases the rumblings in this country that we ought to re-examine our policy,” he said as undersecretary of DHS in 2003.
He also warned that decriminalization in Canada could mean longer wait times and tougher inspections at the border.
“We don’t want to move to a decriminalized regime when it comes to drug use,” he said in 2003, applauding efforts by prohibitionist groups to oppose reform efforts in Nevada and South Dakota.
On The Campaign Trail
It does not appear that Hutchinson has directly discussed marijuana policy since announcing his 2024 candidacy.
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
As governor, Hutchinson was adamant in his opposition to a 2016 medical cannabis legalization ballot initiative that voters ultimately approved.
He said that the state “should not set a new pattern of determining what is good medicine at the ballot box.”
LIVE: Governor Hutchinson Holds News Conference to Discuss His Views on Marijuana Initiatives >> https://t.co/771oFLElzw
— Gov. Asa Hutchinson (@AsaHutchinson) September 12, 2016
He also advocated against an adult-use cannabis legalization initiative that activists placed on the 2022 ballot that was ultimately defeated by voters. He instructed state law enforcement to “stand firm” against the measure before it had qualified, for example.
“Once again, they’re selling a harmful drug to the citizens of Arkansas based upon promises that looks good,” he said.
“The science is clear. Recreational marijuana leads to increased drug use among minors & more dangerous roadways,” he said. “This November, I’m voting NO on Issue 4 to legalize recreational marijuana in Arkansas & I hope you’ll join me.”
The science is clear. Recreational marijuana leads to increased drug use among minors & more dangerous roadways. This November, I’m voting NO on Issue 4 to legalize recreational marijuana in Arkansas & I hope you’ll join me. For more information, visit https://t.co/U2PqKBYkkL
— Gov. Asa Hutchinson (@AsaHutchinson) September 9, 2022
— Gov. Asa Hutchinson (@AsaHutchinson) October 21, 2022
He said in 2020 that the federal government’s lax approach to marijuana is to blame for the growing number of states that are enacting legalization.
“Whenever there’s not a clear federal position on legalization of marijuana, legalization of drugs, if there’s not a clear federal position, then there’s going to be a continued erosion and movement toward legalization of marijuana at the state level,” he said.
Watch Hutchinson’s marijuana comments, about 31:10 into the video below:
After Arkansas moved to legalize medical marijuana, the then-governor said that his administration would follow through with providing funding to implement the program but that “Congress is going to have to address it.”
“I don’t like the idea of implementing laws in Arkansas that violate federal law,” he said. “That is a given. That’s where we are. And that’s not a good position to be in.”
Hutchinson said in 2019 that, when he was DEA administrator, “I never dreamed I would be governor with the responsibility of implementing the dispensing of medical marijuana—but the voters approved medical marijuana, and I am committed to make it work.”
He also took the opportunity to warn residents that it would remain illegal to go to another state like Oklahoma to purchase marijuana outside of Arkansas’s regulated medical cannabis market.
“If you buy marijuana in Oklahoma and bring it to Arkansas, you would be breaking not only state law, but federal law as well,” he said. “Federal law prohibits the transportation of marijuana across the state line. Possession of marijuana remains a federal crime.”
During his State of the State address in 2019, the governor said “we need to solve the riddle” and “we are running out of time” with respect to medical cannabis.
“There’s a lot of people out there hurting, and they could probably very well use medical cannabis,” he said, adding, “I want everyone to understand this loud and clear: I am adamantly, etched-in-stone against recreational marijuana.”
Hutchinson said in 2020 that while he has “consistently opposed the legalization of marijuana,” he also “regularly” pardons people convicted of non-violent drug offenses who “are trying to get a better start in life.”
“If there is legislation proposed that expunges the record for simple possession offenses, then I would review it to see if it has the right safeguards,” he said. “I reserve final judgment until after I reviewed and studied the proposal.”
While Hutchinson touted his own pardons for non-violent drug offenses, he sharply criticized President Joe Biden for granting mass clemency to people who’ve committed federal marijuana possession offenses in 2022.
— Gov. Asa Hutchinson (@AsaHutchinson) October 6, 2022
“The President, in his announced policy on marijuana, has waived the flag of surrender in the fight to save lives from drug abuse and has adopted all the talking points of the drug legalizers,” he said. “As governor I have issued hundreds of pardons to those who have been convicted of drug offenses. But in this time of rising crime, there should be a clear record of law-abiding conduct before pardons are issued.”
Throughout his career, Hutchinson repeatedly argued that legalization would not support broader law enforcement goals, calling the reform “irrational and illogical” and linking drug trafficking to terrorist activity. He said the country should invest in more treatment options,” rather than enact legalization.
We need to be consistent & clear on our border security. Title 42 is a critical piece of our strategy to stem the flow of illegal immigration & drugs like fentanyl entering our country. America’s governors are working together to keep our citizens safe. https://t.co/AmD8FpXDup
— Gov. Asa Hutchinson (@AsaHutchinson) April 22, 2022
As a congressman, he was among several GOP members to push for the use of federal anti-drug advertising dollars to “target” states where activists were pursuing marijuana legalization ballot campaigns.
“Proponents of marijuana legalization or decriminalization claim that smoking marijuana is safe, it has a proven medical use, and the criminal laws are being used to impose harsh prison sentences on people that used or possessed small amounts of marijuana,” he wrote in an essay in 2003. “These claims have no factual or scientific basis.”
During his confirmation proceedings to become DEA administrator in 2001, Hutchinson dodged a question from then-Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) about whether he would prioritize enforcement of prohibition in states that had legalized medical cannabis.
“It is still illegal, it is harmful and there’s many potential dangers,” he said. “The scientific community does not support the medical use of it… I think as far as enforcement policy, that’s something I’m going to work with the attorney general on and develop an appropriate policy.”
In 2008, he and former Rep. J.C. Watts (R) wrote an op-ed that criticized the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, writing that “it makes no sense that somebody arrested for a crack cocaine offense should receive a substantially longer prison term than somebody who is convicted of a powder cocaine offense.”
“When disparities like this exist it offends the high principles of equal treatment under the law and fundamental fairness,” he said. “The disparate racial impact of the sentencing rules undermines our nation’s larger goal of instilling respect for the criminal justice system.”
He also testified in favor of reform to address the disparity during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2021.
Hutchinson said in 2001 that he felt it was “unconscionable” that there weren’t more drug treatment resources available in prisons. He added: “I don’t think we ought to reduce our commitment to law enforcement, because when we did that in 1992, we cut DEA agents, we cut the drug czar’s office and we saw at the same time teenage drug use going up.”
Over the years, the official has promoted enforcement activities to address the illicit trafficking of drugs like opioids and methamphetamine.
I appreciate @POTUS’s initiative to address the opioid crisis while strengthening proven treatments for opioid & other drug addictions. We must cut off the flow of illicit drugs within our communities & help save lives through enforcement, prevention & recovery support services.
— Gov. Asa Hutchinson (@AsaHutchinson) March 19, 2018
While heading up DEA, he wrote an op-ed in 2002—titled “Legalizing Drugs Is Simply Surrender”—warning that efforts to reform marijuana laws in the U.K. threaten to embolden Americans who were pushing for legalization.
Hutchinson frequently participated in debates and forums, representing the opposition side of the legalization debate.
In 2001, then then-DEA administrator participated in a debate with the pro-legalization former Libertarian governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson.
The official has also discussed the issue with top reform advocates, including Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) Founder Ethan Nadelmann, former Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) Executive Director Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.) and former NORML Director Allen St. Pierre.
“I would certainly think it’s important that we reduce the use of illegal drugs such as marijuana—and history teaches us that if you legalize it, use will go up,” he said in a C-SPAN Washington Journal appearance with St. Pierre. “I think that’s a great concern to anybody who’s involved in public policy, but also as a parent and community leader.”
Hutchinson seemingly recognized the ineffectiveness of the drug war during a discussion with Franklin in 2009, saying “overall the usage is not going to change here in the United States.”
“We’ve been at this war for well over 30 years—closer to 40 years, four decades—and you know the amount of drugs coming in to this country has not decreased,” he said. “It hasn’t remained the same, it has increased, whether we’re talking marijuana, whether we’re talking cocaine or heroin.”
“Our democracy is not going to fall if you legalize marijuana. But I think you have to ask yourself, what is the best thing for our country?” Hutchinson said during a 2013 discussion with Nadelmann. “I believe the best [policy] is keep it criminalized, keep it illegal conduct, but let’s make the adjustments from lessons that we’ve learned over the last two decades.”
During a 2016 forum, Hutchinson and then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) debated the merits of legalization, and the Arkansas official said that he remains concerns about the possibility of increased youth use and the continued presence of an illicit market.
He also said that Texas’s law allowing certain patients to access CBD oil would be “preferable” policy to comprehensive medical cannabis legalization.
In a debate with Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) Founder Rob Kampia in 2009, Hutchinson downplayed the idea that legalization would free up law enforcement resources and argued that the majority of the public didn’t support the reform.
Speaking at a CATO event focused on legalization, Hutchinson predicted that state level reform means that the “stage is set for a confrontation of massive proportions” with the federal government.
“I agree that there are changes that need to be made as we look at how we enforce our laws,” he conceded during a 2012 debate. “I agree that we need to have a robust debate about incarceration policies and what we are doing in our fight against illegal drugs and how much we’re devoting to rehabilitation. All of those issues are appropriate to be on the table. So there needs to be changes.”
Personal Experience With Marijuana
After being confirmed as the head of DEA, Hutchinson said that he’d never tried marijuana—though he said that while he was in high school, he “did make beer runs to Oklahoma, and that was illegal.”
He was also asked in 2001 whether he’d ever consider using cannabis for medicinal purposes, and the official said that he’d have the confer with the U.S. attorney general but that “we do not send the wrong signal…that marijuana use is an acceptable practice.”
In 2017, it was reported that Hutchinson’s son was listed as the registered agent of a company that was seeking a license from regulators to cultivate medical cannabis.
At an event with college students in 2002, the DEA chief was pressed on the impact of legislation proposing crackdowns on drugs like ecstasy in rave culture. He offered that there’s “nothing wrong with techno music.”
“My son likes techno music and, it might be surprising for you to hear, I went to a rave last Friday,” he said. “It was hard when it started at one in the morning, but I was there to observe.”
Marijuana Under A Hutchinson Presidency
Given the growing bipartisan support for marijuana legalization—and the vast number of states that have moved to regulate the plant in some form—it’s difficult to envision a politically viable scenario where a president would choose to aggressively enforce federal prohibition. But given his track record of vocally opposing reform at every stage of his career, it seems unlikely that a Hutchinson administration would take proactive steps to remove federal obstacles to state-legal cannabis businesses and consumers.
While his tone has softened on medical cannabis and he seems to appreciate that criminalization alone has proven ineffective, he has staked his legacy as a drug warrior who will not budge on the broader question of legalization.
Hutchinson as president would wield a massive loudspeaker likely echoing the same anti-reform talking points that he’s honed for decades at a critical time for the legalization movement. It remains to be seen what kind of policy actions would come along with the rhetoric, however.
The post Where Presidential Candidate Asa Hutchinson Stands On Marijuana appeared first on Marijuana Moment.