2016 Presidential Candidates' Views Differ On Marijuana

| by Will Hagle
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April 20 has long been regarded as an unofficial holiday for cannabis users, but the upcoming election could have an impact on whether the day becomes more of an official celebration in the future. With the U.S. moving towards legalization and politicians growing increasingly accepting of the drug, marijuana will be an interesting topic during the 2016 election campaign cycle. The Obama administration has largely left Colorado and Washington free to experiment with legalizing cannabis for recreational use, and the Senate recently introduced a bill that would lessen federal restrictions on medical marijuana in states where the drug is legal. 

That bill was introduced by a bipartisan group of Senators, which shows that the issue is no longer divided along party lines. A Pew Research Center poll found that 63 percent of Republican millennials (voters born after 1981) and 77 percent of Democratic millennials support marijuana legalization. According to a Gallup poll from November 2014, 51 percent of all Americans support legalization. 

Those numbers demonstrate that views on the issue are still relatively divided. Similar to other social issues like abortion and gay marriage, the 2016 candidates will be forced to define their views on legalization during their campaigns. Some already have a clear stance on either side of the issue, while others have less firmly-held convictions. Here is how the candidates that have officially declared feel about the issue. 

Rand Paul

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was one of the first to formally enter the 2016 race, and his views on marijuana differ greatly from the Republican norm. Paul teamed with Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand to introduce the federal medical marijuana legislation, which has also received vocal support from the Obama administration. Given Paul’s libertarian-leaning values, his support of the bill is likely more of an anti-government move than it is a symbol of his pro-pot stance.

Paul has dodged questions about his personal history with the drug, only stating that he “wasn’t a choir boy when he was in college” and that he “made mistakes when [he] was a kid.” He’s also stated, “I think drugs, marijuana included, aren’t good for you.”

Still, Paul is realistic about the drug and the many abuses caused by its criminalization. He’s actively involved in criminal justice reform, speaking candidly about racial bias and seeking an end to incarceration for nonviolent crime. He’s also talked about excluding industrial hemp from the Controlled Substance Act’s definition of marijuana. Despite Paul’s relatively progressive views on marijuana, he still describes himself as “strongly pro-life” and has referred to gay marriage as a “moral crisis.” Paul certainly doesn’t have views that adhere to any established standard, so it will be interesting to see how his libertarian values are refuted or discussed amongst the other GOP candidates during the primary debates. 

Hillary Clinton 

Clinton is currently the only official candidate pursuing the Democratic nomination. Others will challenge her eventually, but for now she remains the presumed nominee. Her views on marijuana, like her views on gay marriage, have changed over the years. She’s still yet to take a clear stance on the issue of federal involvement in medical marijuana.

“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve done enough research yet to say what the effects are and what they could be on different people with different physical or psychological issues, different ages,” Clinton said in an interview on KPCC. Obama, by contrast, recently said “We should follow the science as opposed to ideology on this issue.” 

To Clinton’s credit, she cited the ability of Colorado and Washington to serve as “laboratories of democracy” regarding the issue, which means she’s not exactly opposed to the drug. She’s just “a big believer in acquiring evidence,” and doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions. It’s likely that her view on marijuana would be similar to that of Obama’s if she assumes office in 2017: careful to make any drastic changes to the federal law, but also not too critical of the states that have decided to test out legalization.  

Ted Cruz

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is another 2016 candidate whose views on marijuana have changed throughout his political career. During a 2014 Texas Public Policy Foundation conference, Cruz criticized the Justice Department for failing to intervene in states that have legalized marijuana and are therefore violating federal law.

More recently, he had the following to say: “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.” This, obviously, is a declaration of support for state’s rights much more than it is support for marijuana.

In terms of his personal history with the drug, Cruz has been forthright yet regretful. One of Cruz’s representatives told the Daily Mail: “When [Cruz] was a teenager, he foolishly experimented with marijuana. It was a mistake, and he’s never tried it since.”

Marco Rubio

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is the one presidential candidate that has completely dodged the marijuana question. In response to a question about whether he’s ever smoked marijuana, Rubio said: “I’ll tell you why I never answer that question. If I tell you that I haven’t, you won’t believe me. And if I tell you that I did, then kids will look up to me and say, ‘Well, I can smoke marijuana, ‘cause look how he made it.’” That seems like a more long-winded way of saying what Cruz said — that he used the drug in the past and regrets it — but the truth will apparently remain unclear. A candidate’s personal history, of course, shouldn’t factor into whether he or she gets elected. That, however, tends not to be a case, with personality and history definitely play roles in the public's perception of a candidate.

In terms of policy, though, Rubio’s much more harsh than Paul and Cruz. “I think we need to enforce our federal laws,” Rubio has said about marijuana legalization. “The bottom line is that I don’t think people should smoke marijuana,” Rubio said on another occasion. 

Paul, Clinton, Cruz and Rubio are the only candidates to officially declare that they’re running for president in 2016. Each has a unique position on marijuana legalization and drug reform. Other candidates will surely join the race, and the issue will inevitably be discussed in more detail as the campaign goes on. It’s clear that public perception of marijuana is shifting, and it will be interesting to see how important the issue becomes by election day. 

Sources: Pew Research Center, Gallup, The Guardian, The Washington Times, The Washington Post, The Independent, SCPR, Forbes, The Daily Mail

Image Source: Salon