In the past few years, the U.S. has been steadily growing support for marijuana reform. From the presidential candidates to the general public, this progressive attitude has become a hot topic for debate, and as an election year approaches, everyone—from governors to legislators to those who would be president—seems to have an opinion on the issue.
Though public opinion is shifting toward embracing cannabis reform, presidential candidates are a little more hesitant to jump on the bandwagon. Of the candidates who have expressed interest in running for the 2016 presidential nomination, only three support radical federal reform as of press time. One candidate is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is in favor of decriminalization and medical marijuana use and open to federal legalization. Alongside him is Democratic candidate Lincoln Chafee. Having already signed marijuana decriminalization laws on a state level, the former Rhode Island governor admits recreational use could be good for tax revenues. Still, both Chafee and Sanders have made it clear they will continue to monitor Colorado before making any major decisions. Finally, Donald Trump expressed interest in legalizing drugs back in 2011 but as of press time has not released further statements on the matter.
A handful of candidates are open to medical marijuana legislation but are against recreational use. Once a staunch opponent of cannabis reform, Hillary Clinton has since become more receptive—a change from her 2007 stance against decriminalization. Now, the former secretary of state and perceived Democratic front-runner believes state governments have the right to set their own laws and is open to medical marijuana use. All the same, she maintains she has never tried cannabis herself. “I didn’t do it when I was young; I’m not going to start now,” she told CNN. Like Clinton, Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley has softened over the years. Previously known for his
firm opposition to drugs, the Maryland governor has since become open to moderate marijuana reforms, such as decriminalization and a program for very limited medical marijuana distribution.
Republican candidate Rand Paul is also open to limited legislation, having expressed interest in scaling back the war on drugs; in March, he signed a bill to curb the federal government’s role in medical marijuana laws. Fellow GOP candidate Lindsey Graham is also receptive to the benefits of medical marijuana but has articulated resistance
to federal legalization. Bobby Jindal was supportive of medical initiatives in Louisiana. Meanwhile, Dr. Ben Carson is skeptical of medical marijuana but has not explicitly come out against it.
Most of the current Republican candidates are against legalization—but where some believe in the individual state’s prerogative to decide its own legislation, others believe the federal government has the final word, pitting a classic conservative issue, states’ rights, against the decidedly un-Republican idea of federal dictation.
Though Rick Perry has expressed clear resistance to federal legalization, he is a strong proponent of individual state rights. In an interview with talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, Perry said, “I don’t agree with those decisions that were made by the state of Colorado or Washington, but I will defend it to my death, if you will, to allow them to make those decisions.”
Fellow candidates Ted Cruz and George Pataki echo this approach. Like Perry, they strongly oppose marijuana legalization but agree that states are entitled to make their own decisions. Despite the traditional Republican trend toward this kind of states’ rights rhetoric, Cruz has been critical of Obama’s leniency in allowing states to dictate their own cannabis laws, and Pataki is wary of the ramifications of individual state legislation with respect to neighboring states and youth. Both candidates admit to having tried cannabis when they were younger.
During his time as Florida governor, Jeb Bush spoke against a medical marijuana bill—but nonetheless supported the state’s right to decide the issue itself. He, too, admits to having smoked cannabis when he was younger.
Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina oppose legalization, medical use and decriminalization. Though Rubio has declined to comment on his own history with weed, Fiorina claims she never had any interest in marijuana, even when she was battling cancer. Christie was opposed to the medical legislation in his state.
Perhaps some of the strongest opponents of marijuana reform among those running are Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, both of whom oppose marijuana reform on a federal level. Unlike their fellow GOP candidates, Huckabee and Santorum do not believe the states have the right to make their own laws. In a statement he posted on Facebook, Huckabee wrote that Colorado’s tax revenues came at a severe social cost. Meanwhile, Santorum believes the states that have legalized marijuana use are in violation of federal law. As he explained in an interview with Hugh Hewitt, “I think federal laws should be enforced, and I think Colorado is violating the federal law.... The federal law is there for a reason, and the states shouldn’t have the option to violate federal law. As Abraham Lincoln said, you know, states don’t have the right to wrong.”
Several states have marijuana initiatives going on the ballot in 2016. This past March, Nevada became the first to include a legalization initiative in the upcoming elections. The state currently has medical marijuana laws in practice, and next November, Nevada could become the fifth state to regulate and tax marijuana on a recreational level—if voters are so inclined.
In 1996, California became the first state to allow medical marijuana. Still, persistent conservative resistance has prevented the state from legalizing cannabis completely. But times are changing. In a 2013 survey of Californians likely to vote in the November 2016 election, 65 percent expressed support for legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana. Now, the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Alliance are working to draft an initiative for the rapidly approaching 2016 ballot.
Arizona is seeing a similar shift toward reform. Though voters in the state are predominantly conservative, a recent Pew survey shows young Republican voters are supporting legalization more and more—some studies say as many as six in 10 Arizonans would support cannabis legalization measures.
Meanwhile, Portland, Maine, made it legal for adults to possess a small amount of marijuana back in 2013, despite the fact that possession was still illegal under state law. Though other cities voted against a similar initiative, the dialogue shows potential for a future ballot initiative in Maine.
Massachusetts saw its first cannabis victory back in 2012, when the state voted in favor of medical use. Now, the state’s ballot initiative committee has put forward drafts of potential legalization initiatives for the 2016 ballot.
On a congressional level, a handful of members have expressed support for marijuana reform. Representatives, such as Dana Rohrabacher of California (R), have spoken out on multiple occasions in favor of easing marijuana laws, invoking the fiscal benefits of taxed regulation and referring to values like individual liberty, limited government and states’ rights. Back in 2014, Rohrabacher co-sponsored a bill, passed that December, that protected individual states’ rights with regard to medical marijuana programs. This past March, three senators took action: Republican Senator Rand Paul and Democratic senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill that would end federal prohibition on medical marijuana. The plan would also reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug as opposed to Schedule I, and it has bipartisan support in the Senate. President Obama made a statement on the issues, noting that as more states rethink marijuana prohibition, they could pressure Congress to federally reschedule the drug, acknowledging changing attitudes in most states. “Legalization is not a panacea, [but] locking somebody up for 20 years is probably not the best strategy,” the president said, referring to marijuana’s harsh federal penalties. “At a certain point, if enough states end up decriminalizing, Congress may then reschedule marijuana.”