Legal Marijuana: Where The 2016 Presidential Candidates Stand
By Sam Brasch
Jul 2, 2015
Posted July 2 | Updated Sept. 18:
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky made history in Denver when he became the first presidential candidate to raise money from the legal cannabis industry in June. That got us thinking: Where do the other candidates stand on recreational marijuana in Colorado? We've updated this post to reflect comments from the Republican and Democratic primary debates.
Those debates made clear that pot is on the mind of pretty much all the candidates (just as a topic, we hope). With the Republicans candidates debating next in Boulder, don't expect the haze of legalization to clear out anytime soon. Here's what we know so far:
The Republican senator earned top marks from the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington lobbying group, for his sponsorship of a bill allowing states to set their own policies regarding medical marijuana. He has also been a vocal supporter of efforts to reduce criminal punishments for those arrested for using or possessing the drug.
In the past, Sen. Paul has framed his marijuana position around states rights. "I see it just more from a federal perspective," he told the Denver Post. "And I think the federal government just ought to stay out."
The Kentucky senator made the same point in the CNN debate, but also went after the other candidates for criminalizing a drug that some, including Jeb Bush, have admitted to using.
"I think one of the great problems, and what American people don't like about politics, is hypocrisy," Paul said. "People have one standard for others and not for themselves."
What do the libertarian and a democratic socialist running for president have in common? The short answer: legal marijuana.
Sanders had said he was considering support for recreational marijuana. That changed at the first democratic debate when Anderson Cooper asked him if he'd support Nevada's ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana.
"I suspect I would vote yet," Sanders answered. "And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana."
Just Curious For Now
Running for the Democratic nomination in 2007, Clinton said she supported research on medical marijuana, but opposed efforts to reduce penalties for cannabis use.
Eight years later, her position appears to have reversed. In a CNN Town Hall, Clinton said she is now skeptical that marijuana works as medicine and is interested in seeing how the legalization efforts play out.
She maintained that wait-and-see approach on both medical and recreational marijuana at the first democratic debate. She met a question of whether she is ready to take a position on the issue with a forceful, "No."
Not For Me, But Go Ahead
The former Republican governor of Florida has admitted to being a pot user in high school, but says he now deeply regrets it. His position on legal marijuana in is somewhat similar: it happened, but he wishes it hadn't.
“I thought [legalization] was a bad idea,” Bush said at the Conservative Political Action Conference, “but states ought to have the right to do it.”
He isn't so easy going when it comes to his home state. Just last year, he opposed a ballot initiative to allow medical marijuana in Florida. That postilion earned a charge of hypocrisy from Rand Paul (see above) in the second Republican debate.
"Under the current circumstances, kids who had privilege like you do don't go to jail, but the poor kids in our inner cities go to jail," Paul said to Bush.
Last year, the GOP senator from Texas criticized President Obama for allowing Colorado and Washington to continue selling marijuana unimpeded by federal law. Now, it appears he has shifted into Bush's cannabis camp. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, he told Sean Hannity that, "if the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that's their prerogative."
The Republican senator from Florida opposes any form of legal marijuana, but could imagine supporting medical marijuana so long as it isn't mind-altering. He now takes the same leave-it-to-the-states stance as his fellow Republican candidates according to a spokesperson.
That last position hasn't been so clear for Rubio. As recently as May 2014, Rubio told Yahoo News that, "marijuana is illegal under federal law. That should be enforced."
Huckabee had the most to say about legal marijuana at the Western Conservatives Summit last week, even if he basically agrees with most of his Republican counterparts. That might be because the former Arkansas governor previously opposed legalization.
Now, he believes Colorado -- like other states -- has a right to legalize it without federal intervention.
That said, he outlined how he thinks states should judge Colorado's legalization effort. If Colorado is making money and creating jobs, great.
“If, on the other hand, you have people who don’t show up for work and who stay stoned half the time, if you have kids who end up eating what they thought was just a good nice brownie that their mama made but it makes them sick and puts them in the emergency room, if you have enough of that, then maybe the other states will step back and say, ‘Thanks, Colorado, for protecting us from making the decision that you guys made that didn’t work out real well for you,” he said.
The former Maryland governor's presidential bid is a Hail Mary pass aiming somewhere to the left of Clinton. But O'Malley shares her uncertainty on recreational marijuana.
O'Malley did sign bills decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana and creating a medical marijuana program as governor. And at a recent stop in Colorado, he told marijuana industry members he'd remove marijuana from the federal government's list of Schedule 1 controlled substances.
But would he support marijuana legalization outright?
"I am not there yet," he said.
Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson won the straw poll at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver without any mention of his marijuana politics.
That may have been wise in pot-friendly Colorado. The Republican has adamantly opposed any legalization of what he considers a "gateway drug," but does offer some mild support for certain uses of medical marijuana. He told Fox News that marijuana, "tends to be a starter drug for people who move onto heavier duty drugs – sometimes legal, sometimes illegal – and I don’t think this is something that we really want for our society."
Hewitt was unimpressed with the nuance because Colorado and Washington would "pump marijuana into the national marketplace" if not held to federal drug laws.
"You know, you may be right," said Kasich. "I just want to give it some thought."
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO may have best articulated the states-rights position on Colorado legalization.
"I respect Colorado's right to do what they did. They are within their rights to legalize marijuana, and they are conducting an experiment that I hope the rest of the nation is looking closely at," she said in an interview with the Des Moines Register.
Still, Fiorina doesn't see marijuana legalization as separate from the epidemic of drug addiction, maybe because she lost a child to it. "We are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It's not," she said at the second Republican debate.
Get That Stuff Out Of Here
The business tycoon has changed his tune on marijuana since the 1990s. Back then, he said legalization was key to winning the war on drugs at a luncheon with the Miami Herald.
Today, he isn't so hot on the idea of people in Colorado lighting up legally. At CPAC, he told Sean Hannity legal marijuana was a bad idea. He did not even advocate the states' rights argument for legal marijuana when given the chance.
"If they vote for it, they vote for it. But they got a lot of problems going on in Colorado right now, big problems," he said.
Louisiana's Republican governor isn't just against marijuana on a personal level. He doesn't think states should have any right to disobey federal law.
“I don’t think you can ignore federal law," he told the Washington Times when asked if he would bring down the hammer on pot shops as president. "It is still the law of the land. It still needs to be enforced.”
New Jersey's Republican governor has been consistently against both recreational and medical marijuana.
In an interview with Face the Nation, Christie was asked if he would restore federal prosecution against people enjoying legal marijuana in Colorado. He gave a simple yes, explaining that, "I think there's probably a lot of people in Colorado who are not too thrilled with what's going on there right now."