Marijuana Legalization Will Be A Key Issue In 2016 Presidential Race

| by Will Hagle
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Recreational marijuana use is now legal in Washington D.C. The drug couldn’t be any closer to the U.S. lawmakers who for some reason continue to classify it as a Schedule 1 controlled substance at the federal level. Although the Obama administration has largely left states like Colorado, Washington and now Alaska alone to test their new marijuana laws, the entire approach to the nation’s drug reform could be drastically reversed by whoever holds office next.

If the GOP takes back the White House, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are two of the most likely candidates to be named Obama’s successor. Paul and Bush each has unique views on the legality of marijuana's medical and recreational use. Paul has a libertarian-leaning stance, opposing recreational legalization but encouraging a reformation of the criminal justice system and the way it treats low-level drug offenders. Bush has taken the more traditional conservative stance, speaking out against Florida’s failed medical marijuana initiative but expressing conflicting views when it comes to the federal government’s role in enforcing drug laws. 

Past marijuana use has become a go-to question for presidential hopefuls ever since Bill Clinton claimed not to inhale, so both Paul and Bush have already been forced to discuss the issue with the press. Bush admitted outright that he smoked marijuana during his time at Phillips Academy Andover boarding school in Massachusetts, claiming the drug was “pretty common” there. Paul more vaguely stated that he’d made “mistakes” in his youth, although those that knew him in his younger days claim he did indulge in the drug.

In a double-edged attack on both Bush’s privilege and his personal history, Paul accused his political opponent of “hypocrisy” when it comes to drug laws. “I think if you talk to young people, they’re not very tolerant of hypocrisy,” Paul said. "Jeb Bush admits that — when he was at an elite prep school, where very wealthy kids went to school — that he smoked pot. But he’s still willing to put someone in jail for medical marijuana in Florida. … When Jeb was a very wealthy kid at a very elite school, he used marijuana but didn’t get caught, didn’t have to go to prison. I think it shows some hypocrisy."

Bush’s stance is, in fact, hypocritical. It’s also indicative of the pandering nature of his campaign thus far. When asked about the role of federal government in prosecuting marijuana offenses in medical states, he couldn’t even give a straight answer. “In medical marijuana states? I don’t know. I’d have to sort that out,” Bush said. “I think that states ought to have a right to decide these things. I think the federal government’s role in our lives is way too-overreaching.” His response reads like the current state of the Republican Party — not sure whether to appeal to the old guard or the younger, more socially-liberal sect. Throw in an accusation that the federal government is “way too-overreaching” and you're more likely to appeal to everyone, regardless of the question. 

Paul has framed marijuana prohibition in a more realistic light. It’s a criminal justice issue, and the nation’s criminal justice system is broken. He understands that the wealthy avoid prison sentences for white collar crimes while the poor are locked up for much less harmful offenses. Paul even introduced the Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment Act (the RESET Act), a bill that would reduce the disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine sentencing, among other drug reforms. 

Although it doesn’t seem logical, 2016’s presumed Democratic candidate might be marijuana’s harshest critic. Hillary Clinton claimed to be against marijuana decriminalization in 2008, and she was recently unable to openly support either recreational or medical use of the drug. “I’m a big believer in acquiring evidence, and I think we should see what kind of results we get, both from medical marijuana and from recreational marijuana, before we make any far-reaching conclusions,” Clinton said last year. "We need more studies. We need more evidence. And then we can proceed." Like Bush, she’s taken the more traditionalist approach of leaning towards the middle politically without actually admitting what her true stances are. 

Even if Bush and Paul both fail to secure their party’s nomination (and/or Clinton somehow is unseated by another Democratic hopeful), marijuana is likely to be one of the largest domestic issues discussed in the 2016 race. Multiple states are expected to have legalization issues on the 2016 ballot. According to a Gallup poll, the majority of Americans (58 percent) are in favor of legalizing the drug for the first time in history. It seems like an impossible task, but Americans desperately want their politicians to be honest. That includes being open about their past experiences with marijuana as well as their unbiased views as to how legalization will impact the nation either positively or negatively. Paul has outlined the clearest vision thus far, but even he’s been sketchy about the details of his past. As the campaign progresses and more and more states legalize the drug, it’s likely we’ll be hearing much more about marijuana from this upcoming group of presidents-to-be.