Which Presidential Candidates Would Tolerate Legal Pot?

Marijuana federalists lead the GOP race, while the most pugilistic prohibitionist is stuck in single digits.


With Rand Paul ending his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, the GOP race has lost its strongest supporter of drug policy reform. But the remaining Republican candidates are for the most part not as retrograde in this area as you might expect, especially on the question of how the federal government should respond to state legalization of marijuana.

For years Paul has been saying that drug policy should be devolved to the states as much as possible. In a Daily Show interview last month, the Kentucky senator made explicit one implication of that approach, joining Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in calling for an end to the federal ban on marijuana. Paul also has been an eloquent and passionate advocate of sentencing reform, sponsoring legislation that would effectively abolish mandatory minimums.

Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucus on Monday and seems poised to finish second in the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday, is at best a pale imitation of Rand Paul. The Texas senator, who last spring bragged that he was an original cosponsor of a bill that would cut the mandatory minimums for drug offenses in half, seemed to turn against sentencing reform last fall, even while claiming he still wants to do something about "disproportionate sentences for nonviolent drug offenders." 

Cruz also has reversed himself on marijuana legalization, but in that case he moved in a reformist direction. In 2014 he criticized the Obama administration for failing to aggressively enforce the federal ban on marijuana in the 23 states that have legalized the drug for medical or recreational use. A year later, he agreed with Paul that the feds should not interfere.

"I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called 'the laboratories of democracy,'" Cruz said at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February 2015. "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."

Donald Trump, who finished second in Iowa and is leading the polls in New Hampshire by a wide margin, took a similar stance at CPAC. The billionaire developer and reality TV star, who in 1990 advocated legalization as the only way to win the war on drugs, said he opposes marijuana legalization, which has led to "some big problems" in Colorado. But when asked whether states should be free to legalize marijuana, he said, "If they vote for it, they vote for it." Trump reiterated his support for marijuana federalism while campaigning in Nevada last October. "In terms of marijuana and legalization," he said, "I think that should be a state issue, state by state."

Marco Rubio, who finished just a point behind Trump in Iowa and could take second or third place in New Hampshire, has been less clear on the subject. In an interview with talk radio host Hugh Hewitt last April, the Florida senator said he was against marijuana legalization while conceding that "states have a right to do what they want." At the same time, he said, "they don't have a right to write federal policy," and "we need to enforce our federal laws."

But the real question is how Rubio would enforce federal law. The Obama administration continues to prosecute people for marijuana offenses even in states that have legalized the drug for medical or recreational use. But its general policy is not to prosecute people who comply with state law. Would Rubio raid state-licensed marijuana businesses? He seems keen to avoid answering that question.

Rubio came close in an ABC News interview last April. When the interviewer, Jonathan Karl, asked whether the federal government should enforce pot prohibition in states that legalize marijuana, Rubio replied: "Marijuana is illegal under federal law. That should be enforced. I understand that states have decided to legalize possession under state law, but the trafficking, the sale of these products, that's a federal crime." When Karl tried to nail down the implications of that answer, Rubio switched to talking about why legalizing marijuana is a bad idea.

Similarly, in a Meet the Press interview last August, host Chuck Todd asked Rubio whether he would "use the federal government to supersede those state laws." His reply: "Well, federal government needs to enforce federal law." Todd tried to draw him out more, and Rubio reiterated, "I believe the federal government needs to enforce federal law."

Among the single-digit candidates who remain in the race, Ben Carson says he would enforce the federal ban but make an exception for medical use, while Jeb BushCarly Fiorina, and John Kasich all say they oppose marijuana legalization but think states should be free to adopt that policy (Kasich says "probably").

By contrast, Chris Christie has made no bones about his intent to shut down marijuana legalization if he is elected president. Last April, New Jersey's governor told Hugh Hewitt: "I will crack down and not permit it….Marijuana is an illegal drug under federal law, and the states should not be permitted to sell it and profit from it." During a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last July, Christie offered a warning to cannabis consumers in Colorado: "If you're getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it. As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws."

As I noted last year, that is actually not a very popular position among Republican voters. Surveys indicate that even though most Republicans (unlike Americans generally) do not want to legalize marijuana, most think states should be able to do so without federal interference, which is the position most of the presidential candidates have taken. It is therefore not surprising that Republican voters don't seem to be rewarding Christie for his conspicuous cannabis combativeness.

The top two Republican contenders have explicitly rejected the heavy-handed meddling Christie favors, while the candidate in third place seems leery of fully embracing it. Meanwhile, Christie, who unabashedly proclaims his determination to impose marijuana prohibition on states that have opted out of it, finished eighth in Iowa, is running sixth in New Hampshire polling, and has never scored higher than 5 percent in national surveys. Bad news for Christie is good news for advocates of a less violent, more tolerant drug policy.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.