The 2016 Presidential election campaigning season is heating up to scorching mid-summer form, and there’s one new and surprising issue that presidential hopefuls are being forced to address: marijuana. In fact, both Democratic and Republican candidates are already being grilled by the media to clarify their positions on legalized pot. From Sean Hannity to Christiane Amanpour, pointed questions are being asked and no one is getting a pass. And the fascinating thing is that their answers don’t just fall into the usual rhetoric and follow party lines like we’ve seen in the past with issues like the war on drugs, being tough on crime, etc.
As evidenced by the recent annual Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, that convened in Washington, D.C., the gateway for Republican hopefuls, the issue of marijuana could well define which candidate is viable. Nearly two-thirds of the 3,000 members who voted in a CPAC straw poll thought marijuana should be legal for either recreational or medical purposes, but less than a third of conservatives said it should be legal.
Republicans from all notches of the conservative spectrum seem to understand two things: candidates can’t evade the marijuana issue but need to float a clear, definitive opinion; and it would be foolhardy to ignore what the polls are shouting: that the vast majority of Americans, from both sides of political pendulum, support reform of marijuana laws. Especially with younger voters, including young conservatives, the status quo no longer looks like a viable alternative when it comes to pot.
It’s a sharp contrast from past presidential seasons, where candidates carefully tight-roped around the question, with answers like Bill Clinton’s “I didn’t inhale” to George Bush’s backpedaling to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s “I was no choir boy” that provided us ridiculous sound bites but no firm admissions.
No longer is the marijuana question floated as a matter of scrutinizing ethics. The issue of marijuana reform is now wide-reaching and encompasses several other important political issues: medical use, healthcare, decriminalization, criminal justice reform, recreational use, law enforcement reform, racial inequality, administrative legacy, and especially federalism, the tug of war of states’ rights versus federal intervention.
Already, it’s causing unprecedented diversity among the Republicans, which should make for some entertaining, House Of Cards-like politicking as candidates jockey for favor. So what positions might we see from Republican hopefuls as convention and primary seasons lead up to the 2016 Presidential race?
Paul won the CPAC’s straw pill for the third consecutive year, and seemed to cozy up with pro-marijuana advocates within the conservative party. His past record includes reduced penalties for drug offenses and he seems ready to make marijuana reform a big part of his campaign, already slamming Jeb Bush for his hypocrisy. He hasn’t gone as far as to say legalization would be on his agenda, but is already readily playing the “states’ rights” card
The Governor of Florida has admitted to smoking as a student in prep school, but at the same time has a history of tightening the screws on drug offenders. Responding to Colorado’s legalization in 2012, Bush said: “I thought it was a bad idea, but states ought to have the right to do it.” He’s already been branded as a hypocrite on the issue, which could cost him big with voters and his own party in 2016.
Cruz is probably playing the game better than his peers, careful not to alienate the hard line conservatives in his own party. He’s expressed that marijuana reform is probably warranted, but when asked about Colorado’s outright legalization, he fell short of rubber stamp approval by saying: “If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that’s their prerogative. I personally don’t agree with it, but that’s their right.”
The Governor of Wisconsin has become a somewhat of a rock star to Republican hopefuls who want to see a new guard to compete with Clinton and/or the Democrats in 2016. He’s also embraced the traditional values of the Republican party, saying he opposes marijuana legalization.
The junior Senator from Florida, is just getting his feet wet as a Republican poster boy now, but already has taken a hardline, war-on-drugs stance. But that will be almost impossible to maintain without softening if he wants to ever make waves in the polls.