Marijuana Legalizers Who Ran for President

Major-party candidates who opposed pot prohibition before Bernie Sanders


Three days after Bernie Sanders unveiled legislation to repeal the federal ban on marijuana, Hillary Clinton proposed moving marijuana to a slightly less restrictive legal category. The former secretary of state's faint echo of the Vermont senator's bold bill—the first of its kind in the Senate—underlined how timid Clinton has always been on the subject of drug policy reform. Although the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has had second thoughts about the mandatory minimum sentences she used to champion, the woman who a few years ago explained that we can't legalize the drug trade because "there is just too much money in it" clearly is not ready to call off the war on weed, even though that is what most Americans seem to want.

The dueling marijuana proposals also showed that Sanders, whose chances of winning his party's presidential nomination are remote at best, is nevertheless pushing Clinton to address issues she would prefer to ignore. Marijuana legalization is especially popular among Democrats, and her proposal to facilitate medical studies by reclassifying the drug looks like a bone for primary voters who might embarrass her by favoring Sanders, who in some recent polls has drawn support from a third of Democrats.

While Sanders is having a noticeable impact on the drug policy debate within his party, he is not the first major-party presidential candidate to say marijuana should be legal. Last week I described Sanders as "the first major-party presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization at the state level and descheduling at the federal level." That's true if you focus on the current election cycle. But as a reader pointed out, at least one Democrat and one Republican have previously endorsed marijuana legalization while seeking a presidential nomination. Unlike Sanders, they had no discernible impact on the positions taken by other candidates, partly because they never attracted significant support from voters and partly because public opinion had not yet swung in favor of legalization.

When Mike Gravel, a Democrat who represented Alaska in the Senate from 1969 to 1981, ran for his party's 2008 presidential nomination, he argued that marijuana should be treated like alcohol. "There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to go to a liquor store and buy marijuana," he said during an August 2007 debate. Although he participated in several debates, Gravel never polled above 1 percent, and he got just 0.14 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. In March 2008 he announced that he was switching to the Libertarian Party. Last year he became a director of Cannabis Sativa Inc., a marijuana products company.

Cannabis Sativa's president and CEO, Gary Johnson, happens to be the other major-party presidential candidate who clearly endorsed marijuana legalization years before Sanders. Johnson, who was governor of New Mexico from 1995 through 2002, made headlines by criticizing the war on drugs during his second term, when he unsuccessfully urged legislators to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize possession of small amounts for recreational use. Johnson went further after launching his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in April 2011. "What I'm advocating is the legalization of marijuana," he said in an interview with Sean Hannity the following month. In a June 2011 interview with Rolling Stone, Johnson pointed out that "marijuana is a lot safer" than alcohol.

That Rolling Stone article called Johnson "the GOP's invisible candidate," and he did not get much more attention in the months that followed. He was excluded from most of the GOP debates, and in December 2011 he announced that he was withdrawing from the race. Like Gravel, Johnson switched to the Libertarian Party, winning its 2012 presidential nomination. Johnson received nearly 1 percent of the popular vote, just a bit less than Ed Clark, the most successful Libertarian presidential candidate, who got 1.1 percent in 1980.

Two other candidates came close to advocating marijuana legalization while seeking a major party's presidential nomination.

Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat who represented Ohio's 10th Congressional District from 2007 to 2013, competed for his party's presidential nomination in 2004 and 2008. During a November 2003 debate, he and the other candidates were asked if they had ever smoked marijuana. "No," he replied, "but I think it ought to be decriminalized." While decriminalization can refer to a wide range of policies, in the U.S. it usually means reducing or  eliminating penalties for possession, as opposed to production and distribution. During his second presidential run, Kucinich endorsed the legalization of marijuana for medical use.

Ron Paul, a Republican who was a Texas congressman from 1976 to 1977, from 1979 to 1985, and from 1997 to 2013, is a longtime critic of the war on drugs who was the Libertarian Party's 1988 nominee. As a Libertarian candidate, Paul supported legalization of not just marijuana but all prohibited intoxicants. "All drugs should be decriminalized," he wrote in the October 1988 issue of Reason. "Drugs should be distributed by any adult to other adults. There should be no controls on production, supply or purchase (for adults) because we know, through the observation of the market economy, that government intervention most often causes the opposite of the desired effect."

Paul was less bold when he ran for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. During a September 2007 debate, Paul noted drug prohibition's disproportionate impact on blacks and suggested that "a repeal of most of the federal laws on drugs" would help address that issue. In a Meet the Press interview a few months later, Paul also emphasized reducing the federal government's role in drug policy. "This war on drugs is totally out of control," he said. "If you want to regulate cigarettes and alcohol and drugs, it should be at the state level. That's where I stand on it. The federal government has no prerogatives on this."

In his 2011 book Liberty Defined, Paul predicted that Americans would eventually recognize the folly of drug prohibition:

Crime relating to the drug laws far surpasses the crime related to the 15 years of alcohol prohibition. I expect that someday the country will wake up and suddenly decide, as we did in 1933, that prohibition to improve personal behavior is lost cause, and the second repeal of prohibition will occur. This is more likely now than ever before because of the growing perception that the federal government is inept and more Americans are becoming aware of the senselessness of the war on drugs.

That passage, which was published during Paul's second presidential run as a Republican, is in some ways more radical than anything Bernie Sanders has recently proposed (although back in the 1970s Sanders favored legalizing all drugs). But given the analogy Paul drew with alcohol prohibition, the implication seemed to be that the federal ban on marijuana (and other drugs) should be repealed, which would be consistent with Paul's other statements as a Republican presidential candidate. In June 2011, Paul and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, which like Sanders' bill would have left states free to legalize or continue prohibiting cannabis. Sanders has gone a step further by saying he favors legalization at the state level too.

On this issue, Paul's son, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, sounds like his father during his second and third presidential runs. The younger Paul, who frequently condemns the injustices inflicted by the war on drugs, says the federal government should not interfere with states that decide to legalize marijuana. But he has avoided saying whether he thinks legalization is a good idea.

Until a month ago, Paul was the pot-friendliest presidential candidate in either major party. Sanders grabbed that title during the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on October 13 by saying he would vote for the marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on Nevada's ballot next year if he lived in that state. Paul still has time to grab the title back.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.