By Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — Early signs indicate that marijuana entrepreneurs may have little to worry about as the 2016 presidential campaign takes shape, with some top-rung hopefuls warming to the idea of letting states decide whether to legalize recreational pot.
On the Republican side, those potential candidates include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, both of whom have admitted to using the drug during their younger years, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has said he was no “choir boy” in college.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she never experimented with marijuana but appears open to the idea of allowing states to legalize it.
It’s all good news for Tim Thompson, who commits a felony under federal law every time he sells marijuana to his customers at Altitude, the retail pot shop he opened last July in Prosser, Wash.
With Thompson’s store legal under Washington state law, he said it would be a mistake for anyone running for president in 2016 to try to shut down his operation.
“They’d be alienating themselves from a large majority of people who are for legalization if they took a hard line against it,” Thompson said.
While the push for legalization has gained great momentum in the past two years, the next president will have to decide whether to enforce the federal law that bans marijuana or follow the Obama administration’s lead in allowing states to tax and regulate it, as long as they do a good job policing themselves.
Legalization emerged as a big winner at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, where nearly two-thirds of the 3,000 activists who voted in a straw poll said it should be legal for either recreational or medical purposes.
Nationally, the most recent Gallup poll, conducted in October, found 51 percent of Americans backing legalization. But less than a third of conservatives said it should be legal.
The growing popularity of legalization was not lost on the parade of politicians at CPAC.
“Well, I was told Colorado provided the brownies here today,” Cruz told his audience, a reference to the first state that allowed recreational pot sales in January of last year.
At the gathering, Paul, Bush and Cruz all said that legalization should be left up to the states, responding to questions from talk-show host Sean Hannity of the Fox News Channel. Clinton disclosed her views in June on CNN.
Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority, based in Washington, D.C., said it’s obvious that presidential candidates are paying attention to polls.
“Letting states set their own marijuana laws without federal interference is quickly becoming the default position among ambitious politicians in both parties. … When voters lead, politicians have to follow or get left behind,” he said.
To be sure, not all of the likely contenders in the top tier are jumping on the bandwagon. Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a crowd-pleaser at CPAC who’s scoring high in early polls, is among those who have consistently opposed legalization.
And others say it’s far too early to draw any conclusions on how the issue would fare in 2016.
Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said that with the general election still 20 months away, it’s hardly a surprise that candidates are using what he called “the states’ rights card” as often as possible. But he noted that even George W. Bush, as a Republican presidential candidate in 1999, said states should have the right to decide whether to legalize medical marijuana. As president, Bush backed the federal law outlawing marijuana.
“I doubt that any of these candidates will want to run as the pro-marijuana candidate,” Sabet said. “Even Rand Paul stopped short of endorsing legalization, and he is the most libertarian of the bunch.”
Paul, who won the straw poll Saturday at CPAC for the third consecutive year, had plenty of backing from pro-marijuana activists at the conference. Many of his supporters said they believe Paul would move to legalize marijuana if he won the presidency.
“He’s more receptive to it than any other candidate,” said Dave Hargitt of Fayetteville, N.C., president of the North Carolina chapter of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, a group that had a booth at the exhibit hall at CPAC. “God gave us all free will, and that’s free will to make good decisions or bad decisions — it’s not the government’s place to tell me what I can and cannot do.”
Paul, who backs reduced penalties for drug offenses, appears ready to make marijuana a campaign issue. Last week at the political conference, he accused Bush of hypocrisy for opposing medical marijuana as governor even though he had smoked pot as a prep student.
John Baucum, president of the Houston Young Republicans, said that’s a message that resonates with the large group of voters under 40.
“First of all, I think he’s somebody who can win,” Baucum said of Paul. “We don’t see a lot of the candidates reaching out for that demographic, except for Rand.”
Paul has skipped around the question of whether he has ever used marijuana.
“Let’s just say I wasn’t a choir boy when I was in college and that I can recognize that kids make mistakes, and I can say that I made mistakes when I was a kid,” he told Louisville, Ky., television station WHAS in December.
Thompson, co-owner of the Washington state pot store, said it would be a relief to not have to worry about the federal law prohibiting marijuana after Obama leaves office in January 2017.
“Having it controlled by the state is a good idea,” he said. “In this area — and it’s a conservative area — most people like it when the federal government has less control of what we do in our day-to-day lives, especially something like this. It’s basically adults just trying to enjoy themselves.”
Here’s what some of the prospective 2016 presidential hopefuls have to say about the legalization of marijuana:
Former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, all Republicans, made their comments at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland last week, responding to questions from talk-show host Sean Hannity of the Fox News Channel. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, disclosed her views in June in an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN.
Asked what he thought of Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana in 2012, Bush replied: “I thought it was a bad idea, but states ought to have the right to do it.”
Asked the same question, Cruz 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.”
He said it’s “yet to be determined” whether legalization is a good or bad idea in Colorado, but he added: “I think freedom for the most part is a good thing. States’ rights is a good thing.”
In the CNN interview, she said: “On recreational (marijuana), states are the laboratories of democracy. We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now. I want to wait and see what the evidence is.”
(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
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