Marijuana Federalism Is Principled and Popular

Republican presidential candidates find a way to achieve a tricky balance.


At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last month, Ted Cruz responded to a question about marijuana legalization in Colorado by endorsing a federalist approach to the issue. "I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called 'the laboratories of democracy,'" the Texas senator said. "If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that's their prerogative. I personally don't agree with it, but that's their right."

Those remarks seemed to contradict the position Cruz had taken a year before, when he criticized the Obama administration for failing to aggressively enforce the federal ban on marijuana in states that have legalized the drug for medical or recreational use. Speaking at a Texas Public Policy Foundation conference in January 2014, he described the Justice Department's prosecutorial restraint, which is designed to respect state policy choices, as an abuse of executive power.

Cruz's apparent turnaround reflects a political reality that he and other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination will have to confront. Although most members of their party still support pot prohibition, most Americans don't, and even within the GOP the staunchest drug warriors are dying off, while Republicans in their 20s and 30s strongly favor legalization. As with gay marriage, Republican politicians face a generational shift that will leave them struggling to placate social conservatives without alienating younger, more tolerant voters. Cruz's calibration—I don't personally favor legalization, but as a conservative constitutionalist I think the issue should be left to the states—is the easiest way to strike that balance.

Cruz is not the only presidential contender to figure that out. At the same conference where Cruz endorsed marijuana federalism, former Florida governor Jeb Bush said something similar. Former Texas governor Rick Perry, who describes himself as "a staunch promoter of the 10th Amendment," agrees. Not surprisingly, so does Rand Paul, the most libertarian Republican contemplating a presidential run.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney who opposed the legalization of medical marijuana in his state, seems less inclined to respect the 10th Amendment. During a trip to New Hampshire last June, Christie was asked, "If you were president, how would you treat states that have legalized marijuana?" His response: "Probably not well. Not well, but we'll see. We'll have to see what happens."

Christie's answer, which treats state autonomy as a favor dispensed by a generous president rather than a constitutional requirement, is inconsistent with federalism, a principle that many Republicans seem to take seriously. After Colorado and Washington voters approved marijuana legalization in 2012, a CBS News survey found that only 27 percent of Republicans agreed with that policy. Yet 65 percent of Republicans thought "laws regarding whether the use of marijuana is legal or not should be…left to each individual state government to decide."

Marijuana federalism also appeals to Republicans who support legalization, and there are more of those than there used to be, although they still represent a minority. According to surveys conducted last year, roughly a third of Republicans think pot should be legal. But the proportion is dramatically higher among young Republicans. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in February 2014 found that 63 percent of Republicans born between 1981 and 1996 favored legalization.

The outlook for Republican prohibitionists seems even bleaker when you look at survey data for the general population. Several recent surveys, including Pew's, the Gallup Poll and the General Social Survey, indicate that most Americans favor legalization. Last year's General Social Survey put support for legalization at 52 percent, nine points higher than in 2012. It seems likely that the upward trend will continue, since support is inversely associated with age. According to Gallup's 2013 results, Americans 65 and older were the only age group in which a majority still opposed legalization.

"It's clear that voter support for legalization is increasing," says Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "That's especially true among young voters, and a huge majority of millennials support legalization regardless of party ID. Even if some candidates aren't willing to endorse legalization outright, expressing openness to letting states set their own marijuana laws without federal interference is a way to appeal to this growing voter bloc without necessarily offending the shrinking segment of older voters who still aren't ready to abandon prohibition in their own states."

Since marijuana legalization will be on state ballots next year and will continue to be a source of friction with the federal government, the candidates who have not taken a position yet probably will be pressed to do so as the 2016 presidential campaign heats up. If they are smart, they will parrot Cruz, Perry, Bush, and Paul. Marijuana federalism is a rare opportunity for politicians to be prudent, principled, and popular.

This article originally appeared at

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  1. Until they attempt to amend or repeal the Controlled Substances Act, all this is is worthless lip service.

    1. Exactly right. And the GOP does the same thing regarding deficits and debt ceiling limits.

    2. Exactly. We are being campaigned at, nothing more.

  2. Kinda, sorta, related:

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    In a trend dubbed “Spocking,” Canadians have taken to drawing pointy ears and tiled brows on top of Canada’s seventh prime minister, Sir. Wilfrid Laurier, to make him look like Mr. Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human Star Trek character made famous by Nimoy.

    1. That’s…..illogical.
      /raises eyebrow and stares blankly

    2. And we are defying them.

  3. ….federalism, a principle that many Republicans seem to take fake seriously

    FTFY, hth.

    1. Yup.

      Federalism is a principle that many Republicans pretend to take seriously when it is politically advantageous for them to do so.

  4. prudent, principled, and popular

    Oh, come on. The principled position would be “Marijuana should be illegal, and I’ll do everything in my power to keep it illegal.” It’s a bad principle, but it’s a principle.

    Cruz and others are just trying to have it both ways and placate everyone. That’s the opposite of principle.

    1. Oh, come on. The principled position would be “Marijuana should be illegal, and I’ll do everything in my power to keep it illegal.” It’s a bad principle, but it’s a principle.

      Seems more like a policy preference than a principle.

      1. ya. Maybe Cruz is taking the principled stand because he knows it’s popular. Maybe he is cynically manipulating us. But he is taking the principled stand here.

    2. eyeroller — Right! And then we will take the “principled position” and make alcohol illegal! And next we will make abortion illegal. And then we have to take a “principled position” and make boxing, mountain climbing, skydiving and football illegal?and on and on and on. Heaven forbid we let human beings decide for themselves what they will do.

      Go away, please!

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  6. Political Wisdom

    What is that? Is that like the old Stalin quote about a single death being a tragedy but a million being a statistic?

  7. There are lots of presidential contenders. In 2016, one of them is going to be elected and then do a 180 on every campaign promise and position that got them elected. Precisely which of them do so, is meaningless to me.

    So Cruz thinks he’s a conservative Constitutionist . That’s a good trick when the Constitution has not been in effect as law for a generation. It’s cited a lot…sure… but it doesn’t really affect anything.

    Somehow I don’t see the US allowing, in example, Muslims to form a militia and go to Northern Idaho to practice their war skills with live ammo. The Constitution can go hang itself…as always.

    The marijuana debate has never been rational. It’s really a cultural war between scofflaws and authoritarians, and absolutely not anything else. The DemocratsandRepublicans needed a way to stop certain social trends, and the “War Against Drugs” commenced.

    The Constitution isn’t worth the hemp it’s written on.

    1. “The marijuana debate has never been rational. It’s really a cultural war between scofflaws and authoritarians, and absolutely not anything else”

      1000x, yes!

  8. Republicans are essentially just democrats with bibles.

  9. So happy the old people are dying off.

    1. They can’t die fast enough!

      1. Yes, because they built such a terrible world for you.

        OTOH….I remember the 50s all too well. You wouldn’t have liked it.

        Every freedom movement, gay rights, civil rights, even feminism (which originally was an equality movement, not an advocacy group….I know, that sounds ridiculous), began with the generation now hitting their senior years.

        Even your beloved pot, a really bad drug by the way, was championed by baby boomers.

        What else did our generation and the group just before us give you? Rock and roll, R and B, the first Rap music, Reggae, the movie industry, computers, the internet, and television.

        So, other than freedom and pretty much everything you like, nothing much.

        But, we are consuming too much medical care now, so hopefully we all die soon.

    2. Don’t get your hope up, kids. In the sixties, we’d look at the hippies and think that when they were middle aged they’d be in charge, and pot would be legal. Now that we’ve had 3 presidents in a row who smoked pot and/or did cocaine — legalisation are not the same people attracted to public office.

      1. should be:

        Now that we’ve had 3 presidents in a row who smoked pot and/or did cocaine — yet continued the War on Drugs! — we have discovered that the people in favor of legalisation are not the same people attracted to public office.

        1. Libertarian — When the majority of the American people want pot too be legalized, it will be. You see that happening now in state after state where they are legalizing it.The politicians follow the polls and for the first time the polls show the majority of people wanting pot legalized.

  10. The republican party is so fractured it’s impossible to ever see them in a position of power within the next 75 years, if ever.

    When we are all living like the Russians of the 1950s we will have the evangelical/religious right to thank for waging their continuous War on Women, Gays and Drugs. I hope you’re proud of yourselves because your offspring are going to hate you for generations to come. But that’s ok, isn’t it? Because you’ll be in heaven.

    1. Do you not realize that Congress runs America? Do a little reading about your own system. Congress writes laws and determines the direction of the country. The President administers these laws on behalf of Congress, hence he runs the administration. Technically, he is the head bureaucrat.

      When you say the GOP will never have power again it seems you are both unaware of your own system, and unaware the GOP hold the Senate and Congress.

      Also, in about 5 years when your country hits the debt wall at 90 mph, both parties will turn abruptly right and slash and burn spending. If you don’t believe me look at Canada. We had a horrendous debt problem 35 years ago. We nearly slid into a 2nd world status. At one point the average family income in our wealthiest province (State) was less wealthy than your average black family, or your average family in Alabama, which then was your poorest State.

      We’re now doing okay. Our debt to GDP has dropped from about 1.2:1 down to .35:1. Our budgets are balanced. Our banks didn’t crash, and so on. Because even our communist party up here won’t argue for anything except balanced budgets. Because eventually debt destroys everything.

      1. Pulseguy ? You asked me, “Do you not realize that Congress runs America?”

        Are you kidding me? Are you talking about the same congress that funded Obama care? The same congress that funded the DHS? The same congress that is going to raise the debt ceiling? The same congress that allowed 5 million illegals to cross the border this past summer? The same congress that is going to allow Obama to make green-tip bullets illegal? The same congress that is going to allow Obama to make a nuclear deal with Iran? And you think congress is running this country? You think congress is determining “the direction of this country?” HA! I’ve read more about my country than you’ve read ANYTHING in your ignorant life buddy. What planet are you living on?

        And you drone on, “When you say the GOP will never have power again it seems you are both unaware of your own system, and unaware the GOP hold the Senate and Congress.”

        I never said “the GOP will never have power again.” Learn to read!

        Of course I am “aware the GOP hold the Senate and Congress.” Duh! But please tell us exactly HOW these supposed powers have stopped Obama from doing ANYTHING! They haven’t!!!

        1. Pulseguy,
          You know NOTHING about socialism. You really need to read Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky and get educated. When everything crashes in the USA within the next 20 years the liberal/democrat/progressive/socialist is going to say to the American people, “hey, we tried your capitalism and it failed us miserably, but lucky for you we have socialism here to save the day.”

          This is EXACTLY how MY country is going to come undone. Educate yourself because Canada will fall right after the US falls.

          IT’S ALL OVER COMRADE! And socialism is about to win!

          Got that pulseless?

    2. I can see where the “war on gays/drugs” comes from in reference to republicans but the women thing is contrived B.S. there never has been a war on women unless you’re referencing the entire culture of Islam which is a Socialist Theocracy.
      that said
      No one here is a republican, some of them just cling to the hopes that voting red will be different than voting blue from an economic standpoint so i dont know who you are talking to accusing us of being a party to team red.

      And Russia was an Atheist Communist nation in the 50’s theres not much more oppressive and murderous you can get than that particularly virulent philosophy

      1. Rattlehead — Let me educate you:

        When you tell women what they can and cannot have growing in their bodies, they tend to think you have declared war on them!

        I know if you tried to tell me, a man, what I can or cannot have growing in my body, you better be ready to fight me to the death. Because you can be damn sure I am going to try and kill you. Sounds like a war to me. Not any BS about that. Got it?

        You also say, No one here is a republican.”

        How in the hell do you know that? YOU DON”T!

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  13. Proof that Cruz is full of nonsense: he introduced, supported, voted for no bill that would do this.

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