Why you should care
Because America’s pot laws can shift by the city block.
This story is part of a multipart series about under-the-radar campaign issues.
All it will take is a quick neighborhood stroll for the next resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to confront the United States’ stunningly inconsistent marijuana laws. The president cannot legally light up a joint at home, of course — it’s federal property, after all — yet a private party down the street would be chill, thanks to the District of Columbia’s legalization vote. But, even there, POTUS couldn’t legally buy any weed. How far might he or she go to address it come 2017?
States and municipalities have enacted a mishmash of laws and regulations in recent years, from allowing full recreational use to allowing only possession of cannabis oil with a doctor’s approval. The Obama administration has de-emphasized marijuana enforcement, and a legal industry has started to flourish in some states. That’s been good news for one of those seeking the presidency this fall: Libertarian Gary Johnson, who was CEO of a marijuana business before launching a second run for president. An avid user — he says he’ll swear it off in the White House — Johnson counters Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the more pro-pot candidate.
But for marijuana to have a prominent place in a general election — an election that will likely rest on the economy and an uncertain world — would all but require Johnson to be a bigger presence. If he can clear the required 15 percent polling bar, he is expected to force the issue in the debates, though his campaign did not respond to OZY’s requests for comment on the matter. But short of a debate moment or an interviewer looking for an unusual question, “neither candidate will likely say the word ‘marijuana’ again,” says Allen St. Pierre, former executive director of the pro-legalization National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
This issue — full legalization — splits the generations.
Larry Sabato, the head of the University of Virginia Center for Politics
America’s scattershot approach to this topic is part of a global debate about the drug. In Canada last year, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party platform included a pledge to legalize marijuana. It was part of an ultimately successful generational contrast between the then-43-year-old candidate and the anti-pot incumbent, Stephen Harper. (Trudeau’s win did not bring an immediate about-face, granted, though Canada could pass a legalization program next year despite being on shaky legal ground with multiple foreign drug treaties.) Meanwhile, several European and Latin American nations are embracing marijuana reform, which tends to enjoy public support. Uruguay President José Mujica legalized marijuana a couple of years ago and left office in 2015 with a high approval rating — about 70 percent.
But there’s very little political upside for either Trump or Clinton to force the issue, says Larry Sabato, the head of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “This issue — full legalization — splits the generations,” Sabato says. Older people, on the one hand, boast higher voting rates and are leery of legalization. Younger voters, meanwhile, form the hard core of campaign volunteers and are in favor. “So,” says Sabato, “most candidates like to sidestep the issue by focusing on medical marijuana.”
Clinton supports more research on medical pot and says she would reschedule marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug — with no medical use, on par with heroin and ecstasy — to Schedule 2. She would mostly follow the Obama administration’s lead of not interfering with states and discouraging federal law enforcement for possession. Clinton has also said she would look at tweaks to the banking system so it supports marijuana businesses in legalization states, but she is not all-in on legalization without more study. Incidentally, she could get an electoral boost from marijuana referenda in Nevada (recreational) and Florida (medical), nudging Democratic-leaning younger voters to the polls. The doozie this year is California, as America’s most populous state votes on full legalization.
As in most things, Trump is harder to predict. He suggested legalizing all drugs in 1990. But when asked at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year about Colorado’s experiment with recreational marijuana, he criticized it — without saying he’d halt it. “If they vote for it, they vote for it, but they’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado, some big problems,” Trump said. “But I think medical marijuana, 100 percent.”
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a lobby group that supports a “middle road between incarceration and legalization,” gave Clinton a “B-” and Trump a “C+” in its report card on the Democratic and Republican fields late last year, with less permissive candidates getting higher marks.
Marijuana was discussed more during primary season, in part because there were more candidates and more opportunities for voters and media to press them about the topic. Bernie Sanders found ground to the left of Clinton with full-throated support of California’s legalization quest. A bolder pot endorsement from Clinton could help her bring more reluctant Sanders fans into the fold, without embracing some of his more aggressive economic policies. Trump, who has already sought Bernieites with an anti-trade pitch, could find similar fertile soil if he so chooses.
But full legalization remains a borderline political bet: While a record 61 percent of respondents to an AP-NORC Poll earlier this year said marijuana should be made legal, about one quarter of that group said it should be legal only with a doctor’s prescription.