Many Republican Presidential Candidates Are Secretly OK With Legal Pot

But Chris Christie is a buzzkill.
Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

I’m not sure who decided to stage a Republican presidential debate in the liberal bastion of Boulder, Colorado, and whether it’s an amusing coincidence or subtle trolling. Many local residents are, as the New York Times recently noticed, slightly puzzled and none too pleased about the influx of national Republicans. As a former Boulderite, I can report that a big reason for their discontent is the traditional Republican attitude toward marijuana: This is the party, after all, that christened “Just Say No” and launched the War on Drugs. 

Few subjects occupy more space in the local psyche than pot. That’s probably more true since Coloradans legalized recreational marijuana use in a 2012 ballot initiative. And yet, on that front, there’s some cause for optimism. You just have to listen carefully to hear it: Most of the candidates descending on Boulder for Wednesday’s debate have signaled a desire to end the Republicans’ long-running war on pot.

Anyone listening to the Republican candidates will still hear plenty that’s negative about marijuana. With the exception of libertarian Rand Paul (whose undergraduate exploits in this area are legendary), GOP candidates still appear to feel obligated to express their disapproval of legal marijuana. But these days, they usually do so only when prompted by a voter or a debate moderator. And they often append an important qualifier.

See if you can detect a pattern:

  • Jeb Bush on Colorado’s legalization: “I thought it was a bad idea, but states ought to have the right to do it.”   
  • Ted Cruz on same: “I personally don’t agree with it, but that’s their right” and “I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called ‘the laboratories of democracy.’” 
  • Carly Fiorina, who lost a child to addiction: “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. I believe in states’ rights. I would not, as president of the United States, enforce federal law in Colorado where Colorado voters have said they want to legalize marijuana.”
  • John Kasich: “I would try to discourage the states from doing it. Hopefully we'll defeat it in Michigan and Ohio, but if states want to do it ... I haven't made a final decision, but I would be tempted to say I don't think we can go and start disrupting what they've decided.” 

Each candidate, while registering his or her personal disapproval, is also declaring a “states' rights” approach to marijuana meant to placate traditional anti-pot conservatives while at the same time signaling to the growing number of Americans who favor legalization that they won’t act on their personal opposition. (New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former prosecutor, is a notable exception.) Is this a craven bid to win votes packaged as a principled defense of the 10th Amendment that would never apply to, say, abortion? Sure looks like it! A new Gallup poll on Americans’ shifting views on legalization helps explain this Republican transformation:

Gallup Pot Chart

Long-besieged supporters of legal marijuana welcome the change. “My theory is that Republicans are looking for a ‘safe landing zone’ on the issue of legalization, and states’ rights is it,” says Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association in Denver. “Nothing is certain, but I’m cautiously optimistic about where this is heading.”

West adds that Republicans are trying to straddle a tricky divide. They don’t want to alienate the older voters who make up the Republican base and generally oppose marijuana. But neither do they want to come across as the scolding authoritarians of old, because they’re desperate to improve their popularity with millennials, a group that strongly favors legalization. Indeed, when asked about marijuana at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year, Donald Trump was jeered for saying, “I think it’s bad.” (He didn’t always.) And even Trump made an exception for medical marijuana.

Given Coloradans' approval of legal marijuana, it’s all but certain that the Republican candidates will get asked about it in Wednesday’s debate. If the moderators really want to make them squirm, they’ll frame the question as whether the candidates would shut down the small-business owners running the dispensaries, a class of entrepreneur that Republicans typically venerate. The key to their answer won’t be the part where they dump on pot—they’re Republicans!—but what comes after.

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