As Nick Gillespie noted the other day, Jeb Bush recently admitted that he smoked pot in high school, which prompted the Daily Mail to ask other likely Republican presidential candidates (but not the Democrats, for some reason) whether they had ever consumed cannabis. The responses ranged from silence to candor, with various gradations of evasiveness in between. Evidently this is still a touchy subject for Republicans, which on the face of it is rather puzzling. Judging from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), most American between the ages of 20 and 65 have tried marijuana at some point in their lives. In other words, that experience is normal for this age group, which includes almost all of the potential candidates questioned by the Daily Mail.
The most forthright was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose spokesman said he "foolishly experimented with marijuana" as a teenager. Cruz, who is 44, graduated from Houston's Second Baptist High School in 1988. Nationwide, according to the Monitoring the Future Study (MTF), 47 percent of high school seniors that year had tried marijuana, so the foolish experimentation in which Cruz engaged was quite common.
The same may have been true for Bush's graduating class at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1971, as Bush himself suggested. MTF data do not go back that far, but the lifetime rate for marijuana use among high school seniors was 47 percent in 1975, when the study started. In the 2013 NSDUH, 53 percent of 55-to-59-year-olds admitted that they had tried pot. Bush, now 61, was 59 the year of the survey.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Texas) graduated from high school in 1981, when MTF data indicate that 60 percent of high school seniors had tried marijuana. The rate for college students in the early-to-mid '80s, when Paul attended Baylor University, would have been even higher. His spokesman pointed the Daily Mail to a 2014 interview in which Paul, asked whether he had smoked pot in college, replied: "Let's just say I wasn't a choirboy when I was in college, and that I can recognize that kids make mistakes, and I can say that I made mistakes when I was a kid."
A spokesman for former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton said "he's never used pot." That is pretty plausible, since Bolton turned 65 in 2013, when the NSDUH found that less than 20 percent of Americans 65 or older had tried pot. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who turns 65 next month, and 68-year-old real estate tycoon/TV host Donald Trump (whom at least one editor at the Daily Mail evidently considers a likely presidential candidate) also deny smoking marijuana.
A denial would be less plausible coming from former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who is 60 and in 2013 fell squarely into an age group where 53 percent admitted smoking pot. The actual percentage is probaby somewhat higher, since people may be reluctant to report illegal behavior even in confidential surveys. When the Daily Mail asked whether Fiorina was part of that pot-smoking majority, her spokeswoman would say only that "Carly continues to be opposed to legalizing marijuana."
The Daily Mail says "spokespersons for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson never responded to requests for information about their likely candidates' histories with marijuana." All three are in age groups where experience with marijuana is common enough that denials might raise eyebrows. [UPDATE: In 2012, The Hill reports, Christie said on Twitter that he has never consumed cannabis.]
Like Fiorina, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is 43, dodged the question. Instead of answering, a spokesman sent the Daily Mail a link to a 2014 interview:
Rubio told Fusion, a joint venture between Disney and the Spanish-language Univision network, that he would decline to say whether he had ever smoked pot.
"I'll tell you why I never answer that question," he said at a February 2014 Miami event. "If I tell you that I haven't, you won't believe me."
"And if I tell you that I did, then kids will look up to me and say, 'Well, I can smoke marijuana because look how he made it.'"
"The answer to your question is: at this point, it's irrelevant," Rubio said.
Rubio's position is similar to George W. Bush's: I can't answer that question, because saying yes would set a bad example for the youth of America by implying that you can smoke pot in high school or college and still succeed in life. Since that happens to be true, Rubio is saying, like Bush, that it's important, for the sake of deterrence, to maintain the noble lie that marijuana invariably will ruin your life. Yet almost no one actually believes that, precisely because it is contradicted by their own direct and indirect experiences with marijuana. In the 2013 NSDUH, 47 percent of 40-to-43-year-olds admitted trying pot, which suggests, once you take underreporting into account, that most Americans in that age group have direct experience with the drug. Hence Rubio's fear that people would be skeptical if he said he had never used marijuana.
If the impact on young people were Rubio's real concern, he could take the same approach as Cruz, Paul, and Barack Obama, admitting youthful marijuana use while calling it a mistake. More likely he is concerned about what Republican primary voters will make of the news that he joined half (or more) of his peers in trying the world's most popular illegal drug. While recent polls indicate that most Americans support marijuana legalization, most conservatives and Republicans continue to oppose it. Contrary to what you might think, a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that Republicans were only a little less likely to admit smoking pot than Democrats (43 percent vs. 47 percent). But they were much more likely to say smoking pot is "morally wrong" (47 percent vs. 26 percent), substantially more likely to feel uncomfortable around marijuana users (61 percent vs. 49 percent), and much less likely to support legalization (37 percent vs. 59 percent).
The Pew survey did identify one area of bipartisan agreement: Most Republicans (57 percent) and most Democrats (59 percent) said the federal government should not try to enforce marijuana prohibition in states that have legalized the drug for medical or recreational use. Majorities in both parties (67 percent of Republicans, 71 percent of Democrats) also agreed that "government efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth." It seems that Republican politicians would be on pretty safe ground if they joined Paul in supporting marijuana federalism and a de-escalation of the war on weed, including decriminalization of possession for personal use. And it's not clear that many Republicans care whether a candidate tried marijuana in high school and college, as long as he is careful to say he regrets it, although you can see why someone like Rubio might worry that such an admission would hurt him.