Handle With Care: Pot Issue Unnerves 2016 Contenders

In presidential politics, pot is being treated as a dangerous substance.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have signaled varying degrees of support for medicinal marijuana.

Yet at a time when the majority of Americans say recreational pot use should be legal, and two states have already made it so, none of the top-tier 2016 presidential prospects in either party has gone that far.

Candidates have an opportunity now to show they can keep up with movements in public sentiment, said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist.

“This is one of those issues, like gay marriage, where society is changing very quickly,” said Wilson, who favors legalizing pot. “Republicans need to get ahead of the curve.”

The temptation for politicians to take advantage of shifting public sentiment on marijuana is tempered by concern that voters will change their minds, said Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Project SAM, short for Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

“Legalization in theory is a lot prettier than legalization in practice,” said Sabet, who served in the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy under Republican President George W. Bush and Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Colorado Experiment

The nation’s first retail marijuana sales began in Colorado in January after a majority of residents voted in 2012 to allow those 21 years of age and older to buy one ounce of the drug. After two deaths were linked to ingestion of pot-laced food earlier this year, state legislators moved to tighten controls on the fast-growing marijuana edibles market.

In October, for the first time in 44 years of polling on the topic, Gallup found a majority of those surveyed -- 58 percent -- said they favored making pot legal. When Gallup first measured Americans’ attitudes toward marijuana in 1969, 12 percent supported legalizing the drug.

In Florida, a presidential battleground state with 29 electoral votes in 2016, 88 percent of registered voters favor legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes and 55 percent say they’d approve of it for recreational use, according to a poll released yesterday by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. An initiative allowing medical use of pot will be on Florida’s ballot in November.

“To win the state of Colorado, a candidate needs to show respect for our laws,” U.S. Representative Jared Polis, a Democrat, said. “It will be an issue in the 2016 election.”

Christie’s Problem

Christie, who was in Colorado last week campaigning for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez, will be a “tough sell” because he’s been critical of the state’s recreational-pot law in the past, Polis said.

Christie has called New Jersey’s medical marijuana law, enacted before he took office, a “front for legalization.” Yet he also signed a law expanding the availability of medical marijuana to sick children under certain circumstances.

Possible presidential contenders are likely to try to steer clear of the marijuana debate during the primary and general election campaigns, said Bob Loevy, a political science professor emeritus at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

“The roll out of marijuana in Colorado has had a lot of surprises,” said Loevy, co-author of the 2012 book, “Colorado Politics and Policy: Governing a Purple State.”

“Politicians will do what they do when something is controversial -- stay away from it,” he said.

The risk may also appear larger than the potential reward because few donors and voters are motivated by marijuana as an issue.

Donors, Voters

In the past decade, $21.4 million has been spent on ballot initiatives at the state level on marijuana, according to data compiled by the Helena, Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics. That compares with $636.7 million on gambling, $251 million on tobacco and $234.6 million on gay and lesbian issues.

The issue may energize young voters, while being viewed as an affront by older Americans who tend to make up a larger proportion of those casting ballots.

Republicans with an eye on the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus are “very nervous about this issue” because religious voters, who are a core part of the party’s base in the state, may punish them if they signal acceptance of marijuana use, Wilson said.

“The only ones willing to die on a hill on this right now are evangelical conservatives,” Wilson said.

While Paul has stopped short of endorsing the recreational use of marijuana, he introduced an amendment in the U.S. Senate on July 24 that would protect state medical marijuana laws and has worked to reduce federal sentences for drug offenders.

Paul Alliance

Paul’s father, former Texas congressman and 2012 Republican presidential primary candidate Ron Paul, introduced legislation in 2011 with former Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, that would have repealed the federal ban on marijuana. It didn’t pass.

Hillary Clinton, considered the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, if she runs, also holds a nuanced position.

Two decades ago, her husband, Bill Clinton, was forced during a presidential campaign to defend his post-graduate use of marijuana, explaining that he “didn’t inhale.” Today, acceptance of marijuana includes the New York Times, which editorialized on July 27 that “the federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.”

Hillary Clinton has moved on marijuana since her first presidential run in 2008. Back then, she said she opposed decriminalizing marijuana use and wanted to see more research on the medicinal benefits of marijuana.

Clinton Stalling

Last month, Clinton said during a CNN “town hall” meeting that there are “appropriate circumstances” under which marijuana should be available for medical purposes. As for recreational use of the drug, she said that she will “wait and see what the evidence is” in Colorado and Washington, the only other state that has legalized it.

Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll, said the way voters rank their priorities is one reason presidential candidates aren’t rushing to embrace a repeal of the federal prohibition on pot.

“The data indicates that legalization of marijuana in some form is more accepted than it has been, clearly. The question that might take precedence about that is how salient it is to someone’s presidential vote,” Brown said. “How does that rank against the economy and foreign policy?”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE