For decades, cannabis has been a non-issue in American presidential politics. The standard routine was for candidates to admit they made some mistakes in college and then state — in no uncertain terms — that they would not legalize marijuana. Next question. Now, there are more potential response, and a broader spectrum of opinion provided by many 2016 presidential candidates.
Most elected Republicans are generally anti-pot, but zoom in and you start to see nuances and exceptions. Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee hold the old position (pro-criminalization, anti-medical), but others are less strict. Marco Rubio is okay with medical strains that don’t get anyone high, such as Charlotte’s Web. Scott Walker is not in favor of liberalizing cannabis laws in his own state of Wisconsin, but seems content to watch the legalization kudzu continuous its spread. Rick Perry provided a similar, if confusing stance, that medical marijuana is okay in California, but not in Texas. Democrat Martin O’Malley, Governor of Maryland and a likely candidate, said essentially the same thing about Maryland and Colorado — though O’Malley has signed medical and decriminalization bills into law.
That there is some amount of nuance in the GOP field shows the progress made in the last 20 years. That said, the Republican field is not especially friendly to cannabis — with one exception. Senator Rand Paul is vocally in favor of reconsidering our drug laws. Paul has made something of a name for himself by making gambits for left-leaning constituencies, often seeking common ground in his libertarian leanings. And nowhere is this clearer than with his support for cannabis reform. While he’s not quite pro-legalization (no likely candidates are on either side), Paul is pro-medical cannabis and has fought to reduce sentences for people incarcerated on simple possession charges. Furthermore, Paul has used his more sensible position to attack his opponents.
“I think it is hypocritical for very wealthy white people who have all the resources to evade the drug laws to be in favor of strict sentences for those who cannot,” Paul told Sean Hannity last month. “Particularly in Jeb Bush’s case, he’s against even allowing medical marijuana for people that are confined to wheelchairs from multiple sclerosis,” he said.
Bush, like many others, “made mistakes” when he was younger. Paul, who will need to distinguish himself in a crowded GOP field, could make cannabis an awkward issue for other candidates, whose positions are varying degrees of out of touch.
Over on the Democratic side, positions have quietly shifted over the years. The status quo Democratic position used to be no legalization, with maybe a guarded sympathy to medical marijuana — but no more — Colorado and Washington have changed the conversation. It’s increasingly common for candidates to settle into an ambiguous stance. Nowhere is this made more clear than in the statements of early frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
“States are the laboratories of democracy,” Clinton said in June of 2014. “We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now. I want to wait and see what the evidence is.”
Former Senator Jim Webb, who has already announced an exploratory committee (which is code these days for “I’m running as long as my donors don’t abandon me”) has long been a proponent of slimming drug sentences to reduce incarceration. He has been open to legalization in the past and could provide a potential nudge on Clinton. Senator Bernie Sanders has considered running and, while he’s generally liberal on marijuana, seems unlikely to weaponize the issue against Clinton.
Politico recently published an editorial asking, “Is Pot the New Gay Marriage for the GOP?” In other words, will Republicans be forced to hang onto an unpopular stance (e.g. staying anti-marriage equality) in order to appease their conservative base? It’s fair to use the rule of thumb on headlines that end in question marks here: the answer is no. It’s unlikely that any candidate outside of Paul will see enough upside in making cannabis a major talking point. However, that could change if, like vaccinations have recently, cannabis forces itself into the discussion.
This could happen under a few scenarios. Obama could remove marijuana’s Schedule I status, creating a swarm of commentary and activity around pot politics. With his newfound appreciation for executive action, this is at least a possibility. Clinton could create waves by declaring Colorado and Washington a success, but that’s probably more risk than she wants to take on. The moment she comes out for marijuana, the GOP will likely scour every legalized state for a stoned driver that killed an innocent family.
With Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. providing proof of concept, we could see many more states take the plunge. California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Maine, Vermont (through the legislature), Arizona and Michigan could all join in on the fun. If polls show large swaths of the country not just in favor of legalization, but creating legalization, the story may be too big for candidates to avoid. That, more than anything, could make it awkward for presidential candidates who actively try to avoid the issue.
Our 2016 presidential candidates might not see much upside in talking about cannabis, but Americans do. As more voters provide cover, more politicians’ opinions will evolve on the issue. Some will do so reluctantly and others will do so with a quiet sigh of relief, but eventually it will be too difficult to ignore the rising support for cannabis legalization.
Will you be voting in the 2016 election? Is cannabis an important issue for you. Tell us in the comments.