Presidential Politics of Marijuana Legalization

While health, safety and youth awareness are a huge part of the increasing attention given to marijuana, the impact of it in the political space is growing at perhaps an even quicker speed. It is not just an issue for state and local governments—the stance on marijuana could have a large impact on the outcome of the upcoming presidential race. This alone demonstrates the quickly evolving state of American politics, as just 23 years ago former President Bill Clinton was derided for the famous statement, “I didn’t inhale.”

As candidates announce themselves as presidential hopefuls, they will be hit with a barrage of questions regarding their stance on a variety of issues, and marijuana legalization is sure to be at the top of the list. While public opinion has recently shifted in favor of legalization, with a recent Pew study reporting that 53 percent of Americans favor legal marijuana, it is still a divisive issue and everyone is far from on board.

Gov. Chris Christie, a republican from New Jersey, is actually taking marijuana and his vehement stance against it to the forefront of his campaign. Christie has been anything but shy voicing his anti-marijuana opinions, and was quoted on July 28, 2015, as saying, “If you are getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it… . As of January 2017, I will enforce federal laws.” However, on July 31, Christie seemed to voice support for medical marijuana, calling it an issue that should be handled state by state and conceding that it is “helpful for certain adult illness and certain pediatric illness.” This was not his position in 2014, as he went as far as to call medical marijuana a “front for legalization.”

While recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado, Alaska, Washington and Oregon, it is still federally illegal. Perhaps for the first time during a presidential election, Christie’s anti-marijuana stance is one that actually goes against public opinion.

The rest of the Republican Party doesn’t currently take a stern stance when it comes to marijuana, recreational or otherwise. Rand Paul has historically taken the side of it being a state issue, and that such issues should be as denationalized as possible. Jeb Bush voiced an opinion that, “it was a bad idea, but states ought to have the right to do it.” Former New York Gov. George Pataki agrees with Paul and Bush, citing respect for the 10th amendment. However, Pataki’s support is contingent on the laws being followed with regard to state lines, protection of minorities and no increase in dependency.

Where Democrats are concerned there seems to be a similar divide on the issue, again supporting the idea that marijuana legalization is fairly bipartisan. Hillary Clinton has voiced recognition of the benefits of medical marijuana, but has restrained from taking a hard line on recreational marijuana and cites the need for more studies and more evidence before proceeding with recreational legalization. Bernie Sanders has a similar view but seems to tip more in favor of legalization, supporting Vermont’s decriminalization and supporting medical use.

On the other side of the fence, Vice President Joe Biden seems opposed to legalization, though toeing the company line of allowing state independence. While Biden has yet to put his name in the ring, he has been a supporter of the war on drugs and is against any legalization. Biden believes that marijuana use is a gateway drug and that, “it would be a mistake to legalize.”

The first Republican debate takes place on August 6, 2015, and the first Democratic debate remains unscheduled, but is expected in September or October. It is a new era for marijuana, and it will be interesting to see how each candidate will address this topic.

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