Weed Is the Sleeper Issue of 2016

As potential 2016 candidates gather their policy advisors and begin to isolate their views on key issues, they may want to consider one above the rest — weed. 

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As potential 2016 candidates gather their policy advisors and begin to isolate their views on key issues, they may want to consider one above the rest — weed.

You can make stoner jokes all you want, but marijuana policy stands to affect just as many Americans as immigration policy does in the coming years. And while Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have made their views on border control clear, the fast-changing weed landscape (a full 54 percent of Americans now favor legalization) has left Republicans and Democrats all over the map when it comes to toking. Some have been altogether mum on the topic — the last time Hillary Clinton spoke publicly about weed policy was during the 2008 campaign.

In 2012, it was laughable to think that Colorado would legalize recreational weed. Less than two years later, 75 percent of Americans think legalization nationwide is inevitable. Even President Obama has deemed pot no more dangerous than alcohol. Suddenly, a majority of Americans are comfortable with their neighbors smoking pot, and politicians will have to decide whether or not they should embrace that or take a more cautious position. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tells The Wall Street Journal, "All of a sudden the ground is shifting, and it's uncomfortable and complicated. Marijuana has become an issue that candidates have got to pay attention to." Back in October, The New Republic's Nate Cohn imagined how candidates could use the issue against each other in the primaries: "Many candidates will have incentives to use the issue, whether it’s a cultural conservative using marijuana to hurt Rand Paul among evangelicals in Iowa, or a liberal trying to stoke a progressive revolt against Clinton’s candidacy."

So will presidential hopefuls come out joints blazing in 2016? That remains to be seen. Here's where the candidates stand now:

Hillary Clinton

Position: Against decriminalization. During the 2008 Democratic primary, the former Secretary of State gave this statement: "I don't think we should decriminalize, but we ought to do research into what, if any, medical benefits it has."

Change: None yet. It's hard to imagine she'll be able to stick with this line in light of Obama's recent statements.

Martin O'Malley

Position: The Democratic governor is skeptical of decriminalization. He's said he's "not much in favor" of reducing criminal penalties for possession, and he once threatened to veto Maryland's medical marijuana law.

Change: None yet, but O'Malley will be confronted with the decriminalization issue sooner than expected. The Maryland House just voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot on Saturday.

Update, 5:03 pm: The Washington Post reports that O'Malley is now expected to sign the decriminalization bill into law.

Joe Biden

Position: Smarter enforcement, not legalization. After accidentally making his gay marriage position known before the president could weigh in, Biden's been careful not to get out in front of Obama on weed. He told Time in February, "I think the idea of focusing significant resources on interdicting or convicting people for smoking marijuana is a waste of our resources. That’s different than [legalization]. Our policy for our Administration is still not legalization, and that is [and] continues to be our policy."

Change: No. In 2010, he called pot a "gateway drug." He has not amended this statement.

Jeb Bush

Position: Unclear. The current Republican frontrunner hasn't spoken recently about this issue. In 2002, he opposed treatment instead of jail for nonviolent drug offenders. (Some called this hypocritical, as his daughter Noelle was busted for crack cocaine around the same time.)

Change: Not yet.

Rick Perry

Position: In favor of decriminalization. In January, he told the Texas papers, "After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can’t change what happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade." He also thinks states should decide the legalization issue.

Change: Yes. Surprisingly, Perry is one of the first Republicans to really embrace decriminalization. Back in 2008, he criticized the ACLU for protesting random drug sweeps in public housing.

Marco Rubio

Position: Unclear. The Florida senator hasn't weighed in on a medical marijuana referendum in his state. He also won't say whether or not he's ever smoked pot.

Change: Not yet.

Chris Christie

Position: Anti-weed. Last month, the New Jersey Governor told a group of GOP donors, "I don't favor legalization. I don't favor recreational use. I don't favor decriminalization. And I don't favor the use of marijuana as a medicine." He's complained about being "saddled" with his state's medical marijuana law.

Change: No.

Ted Cruz

Position: Against decriminalization, but open to debate. Cruz has criticized Obama for not arresting weed users under federal law.

Change: Not yet, but he's smartly said he's open to debate.

Rand Paul

Position: In favor of decriminalization. The libertarian senator is obviously the most liberal Republican contender on pot issues. He agrees with Obama that minorities are unfairly targeted by drug laws.

Change: No. In 2013, Paul angered weed activists by claiming the drug was " not healthy." Whether he'll amend that statement ahead of 2016 remains to be seen.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.