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Republicans on Legalization: Can We Talk About Something Else?

Trump Faces Fellow Republican
Dr. Ben Carson watches as Donald Trump takes the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado at Boulder on Oct. 28, 2015. Photo by Mark J. Terrill / AP


Republicans on Legalization: Can We Talk About Something Else?

The Republican presidential candidates debated each other on Wednesday in Colorado, the first state to have legal recreational cannabis sales and the state most associated with the legalization movement. Because many states will consider join legalizing cannabis for adults just like the Centennial State on election day, lots of people were interested to see what sort of cannabis discussions came up among 15 of the 19 candidates competing to be the next U.S. president.

Unfortunately, there was almost none.

At the primetime debate, there was exactly one question on cannabis. It was asked by moderator Carl Quintanilla and went to Ohio Governor John Kasich. Here is that exchange in its entirety:

QUINTANILLA: Governor Kasich, let’s talk about marijuana. We’re broadcasting from Colorado which has seen $150 million in new revenue for the state since legalizing last year. Governor Hickenlooper is not a big fan of legalization, but he’s said the people who used to be smoking it are still smoking it, they’re just now paying taxes. Given the budget pressures in Ohio, and other states, is this a revenue stream you’d like to have?

KASICH: Well, first of all, we’re running a $2 billion dollar surplus, we’re not having a revenue problem right now. And, sending mixed signals to kids about drugs is a disaster. Drugs is one of the greatest scourge in this country, and I spent five years of my administration working with my team to do a whole sort of things to try to reign in the problem of overdoses, and it goes on and on. We could do a whole show on that.

After that, Kasich pivoted to an unrelated thought on income inequality. Other than Sen. Ted Cruz offering to buy Quintanilla some “famous Colorado brownies”, that was all we heard about this important and dynamic topic. Cannabis did not come up at all in the earlier “undercard” (or “kids table”) debate.

There is plenty to dissect in that short exchange. Notice that the question was phrased in economic terms. This is a subtle win for the legalization movement, because once the conversation becomes more about money than morals, there is nowhere for opponents of legalization to turn. To hang onto his anti-legalization stance, Kasich has to talk about “drugs” (notice he never says “cannabis” or “marijuana”). Drug overdoses, as the Governor said, are a terrible problem, but he neglects to mention that it is impossible to overdose on cannabis.

Equally notable was the lack of complaint from the other candidates on the stage. Sen. Rand Paul has occasionally distinguished himself from other candidates with his pro-states’ rights stance on drug policy, but he stayed quiet, and the other GOP candidates are more or less in line with Kasich. In short, Republicans with national ambitions don’t see a lot of upside in making a lot of noise on this issue.

The very next morning, however, a top contender for the Democratic nomination made news with this statement:

Sanders has emerged as a champion on this issue. His concrete proposal of de-scheduling cannabis is historic for a presidential candidate with a following as large as his. What’s more, Sanders’ proposal is in line with the rest of the country. A recent Gallup poll found that 58 percent of the U.S. favors marijuana legalization — given that, you’d think Sanders’ proposal to decriminalize pot at the federal level would be considered cautious, not seismic. Bernie’s move creates a modicum of political cover for liberal politicians who would like to join him in making sense on this issue.

As for Clinton, she has settled into a stance of “let’s see how things go in Colorado.” Clinton is as politically cautious as they come, so de facto states’ rights is probably all we’ll get from her for now. It’s likely that she will camp out there for this election. Not unlike civil unions in the gay marriage debate, Clinton’s stance will probably be a refuge for many Democrats and a few Republicans until enough of them decide that this halfway point is kind of silly and they take the plunge to decriminalization, and eventually legalization.

With the occasional exception, Democrats are ahead of Republicans on legalization. Fortunately, when it comes to the presidential race, there is a direct correlation between the quality of a candidate’s marijuana policy and their desire to talk about it.

Do you think the next president will legalize cannabis? Let us know in the comments.

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