Presidential candidates rarely speak of it except when specifically asked, but make no mistake, marijuana policy is a player in the agenda of the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Candidates from both parties have staked out a wide array of positions on the issue -- each of them has a record on it. None has actually advocated for legalization except, perhaps, Bernie Sanders, who in November introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act in the Senate.
Meanwhile, the pro-legalization advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) released its "Voters Guide to the 2016 Presidential Race," detailing the candidates’ positions on marijuana policy and assigning them grades based on where they stand.
We offer some of MPP's "Voters Guide" material now, plus other pertinent information about the candidates' positions. Remember, MPP is a pro-pot group. Said its spokesperson Mason Tvert, “Voters should know which candidates support rolling back prohibition and which ones are fighting to maintain it."
From this group, a grade of "A" means the candidate is most apt to want marijuana fully legalized; a grade of "F" means full-blown opposition to legalization, in any form.
JEB BUSH: In spite of admitting "I drank alcohol and I smoked marijuana" in high school, the former governor has a long history of supporting the war on drugs and opposing the legalization of marijuana for any purpose. He and his wife, Columba, are on the advisory board of the Drug Free America Foundation, an anti-marijuana organization with a history of opposing marijuana policy reform efforts.
In 2014 he formally opposed Amendment 2, the statewide ballot initiative to establish a comprehensive medical marijuana program in Florida.
At the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference, he said he supports states’ rights to establish their own marijuana policies and that the federal government should not interfere in their decisions.
During a radio interview in December 2015, Bush did say he supports marijuana decriminalization, although he also equated marijuana to opiates, calling it a “gateway drug,” and claiming “the new marijuana [is] highly, highly toxic.” MPP Grade: C-
BEN CARSON: Dr. Carson has jumped around on this issue, expressing some support for allowing the use of medical marijuana, but overall, his criticisms of legalizing and regulating the plant for adult use have been fairly harsh. He calls marijuana a gateway drug.
He said he supports medical marijuana "in compassionate cases." But at a June 2015 campaign event in Colorado, he noted that "regular exposure to marijuana in the developing brain has been proven to result in a decreased IQ. The last thing we need is a bunch of people running around with decreased IQ."
Therefore, he says, as president he would enforce federal drug laws in which the use of marijuana is considered a crime, and would not only continue the war on drugs, he would "intensify it."
On the other hand, on Jan. 6, 2016, he softened his stance in a Des Moines Register story: “Medical marijuana has proven its benefit and it should be rescheduled, there’s no question about that. There’s a big difference between [marijuana used for medical purposes] and legalizing marijuana. I don’t want to do that.” MPP Grade: D
CHRIS CHRISTIE: Frankly, the New Jersey governor hasn't got a good thing to say about marijuana in any form. He opposes its legalization, has spoken out repeatedly against states that have legalized it for adults, does not support states’ rights to establish their own marijuana policies and he has said that if he is elected, he will enforce federal prohibition laws in states like California, Colorado and Oregon that have voted to legalize and regulate it.
He opposed New Jersey’s medical marijuana law, which was signed by his predecessor, and he has imposed strict restrictions on the program that have hampered its effectiveness.
He was quoted as saying this in the International Business Times: "[Marijuana legalization]’s not gonna come while I’m here … See if you want to live in a major city in Colorado where there’s head shops popping up on every corner and people flying into your airport just to come and get high. To me, it’s just not the quality of life we want to have here in the state of New Jersey and there’s no tax revenue that’s worth that.”
Christie told Bloomberg last July, “If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it. As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws. That’s lawlessness. If you want to change the marijuana laws, go ahead and change the national marijuana laws.” Grade: F
TED CRUZ: The U.S. senator from Texas admitted, "I foolishly smoked pot when young, but never since." Now he claims he is opposed to the legalization of marijuana for adult use, but he believes states should have the right to establish their own marijuana policies.
That is something of a flip-flop. Previously, Cruz had criticized the Obama administration for not enforcing federal marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington after voters in those states adopted laws that regulate and tax marijuana similarly to alcohol.
In a 2015 interview with the Texas Tribune, he said, “I don’t support drug legalization, but I do support the Constitution. I think individual states can choose to adopt it. So if Texas had it on the ballot, I’d vote against it, but I respect the authority of states to follow different policies.”
At a Conservative Political Action Conference a year ago, Cruz said, “I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the laboratories of democracy. If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that’s their prerogative. I don’t agree with it, but that’s their right.” Grade: C
CARLY FIORINA: The former Hewlett-Packard CEO does not support the legalization of marijuana for any purpose, including medical use. But she recently expressed support for decriminalization.
There's a very real reason Fiorina is against legalizing marijuana: She watched her stepdaughter, Lori Ann Fiorina, battle drug addiction and die an early death, at 35. At the CNN debate, she turned to her personal history: "My husband and I buried a child to drug addiction. We must invest in the treatment of drugs."
She has expressed support for the rights of voters to establish their own state marijuana policies.
“I don’t support legalized marijuana for a whole host of reasons," Fiorina told The Hill, "including the fact that this is a very complex chemical substance, and when we tell young people it is just like drinking a beer, we are not telling them the truth. But I think Colorado voters made a choice. I don’t support their choice, but I do support their right to make that choice.”
And to the Washington Post she said, “Drug addiction shouldn’t be criminalized. We need to treat it appropriately.”
Fiorina was quoted in Slate: “I remember when I had cancer and my doctor said, ‘Do you have any interest in medicinal marijuana?’ I did not. And they said, good, because marijuana today is such a complex compound, we don’t really know what’s in it, we don’t really know how it interacts with other substances or other medicines.” Grade: C+
JOHN KASICH: The Ohio governor is “totally opposed” to marijuana legalization, including the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
But he believes states should “probably” have the right to establish their own marijuana policies and would not challenge state laws regulating marijuana for medical or adult use.
Speaking of Ohio, Kasich told FOX News, "To treat the mentally ill, 10,000 of them sit in our prisons. It costs $22,500 a year to keep them in prison. I'd rather get them their medication so they could lead a decent life."
During an April 2015 radio broadcast he said, when asked about states that have adopted laws making marijuana legal for adults, he said this: “The people in those states have voted that way. The federal government has decided to kind of look the other way.
"I feel very strongly in my state, I’m going to oppose, and they’re going to put something on the ballot to legalize drugs. I’m totally opposed to it, because it is a scourge in this country. Now I would have to give it thought as to, I probably would not from the standpoint that the states have gone forward to prove that. I haven’t thought about this. I’d have to give it a little thought. … In my state and across this country, if I happened to be president, I would lead a significant campaign down at the grassroots level to stomp these drugs out of our country.”
In this YouTube video recorded in the Ohio capitol, Kasich said, “On medical marijuana, doctors that I know tell me we don’t need that, there are other ways to [treat pain].” Grade: C-
MARCO RUBIO: The U.S. senator from Miami, a first generation American, has expressed some support for allowing the use of non-psychoactive forms of medical marijuana, but he is staunchly opposed to the legalization of marijuana for adult use.
He has given his support to letting states establish their own marijuana practices. But in April 2015, he said he believes federal prohibition laws should be enforced in states that have repealed state prohibition laws.
When asked last August on Meet the Press if he would enforce federal law in states where it’s legal, he said, “Absolutely. I believe that the federal government needs to enforce federal law. … I’ve said that I’m open to medical uses of marijuana … if in fact it goes through the FDA process … I’m not in favor of legalizing marijuana. I’m not, and never have been.”
On C-SPAN he said, “I’m against the legalization of marijuana.”
Rubio's presidential campaign spokesperson Alex Conant told Politico, “Senator Rubio believes legalization of marijuana for recreational use is a bad idea, and that the states that are doing it may well come to regret it. Of course, states can make decisions about what laws they wish to apply within their own borders.”
The candidate told the Tampa Bay Times, “If there are medicinal uses of marijuana that don’t have the elements that are mind-altering or create the high but do alleviate whatever condition it may be they are trying to alleviate, that is something I would be open to.”
In a Yahoo! story, Rubio summed it up: “The bottom line is, I believe that adding yet another mind-altering substance to something that’s legal is not good for the country, I understand there are people that have different views on it, but I feel strongly about that.” Grade: D
DONALD TRUMP: The billionaire businessman and TV celebrity has said he favors legalizing all drugs to smash the drug cartels and for the revenue it could bring the federal government -- but that was 20 years ago. More recently, he said he opposes legalizing and regulating marijuana for adult use.
Trump, whose older brother died of extreme alcoholism, has said on many occasions he never even once smoked, drank or used a drug. He now supports legal access to medical marijuana. He believes states should be able to set their own marijuana policies with regard to adult use.
Last October he told The Washington Post, “In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state-by-state. … Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical (marijuana) should happen -- right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states.”
During a C-SPAN interview in June, he said, “I’d say [regulating marijuana] is bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it’s bad and I feel strongly about that. [Moderator: “What about the states’ right aspect of it?”] If they vote for it, they vote for it… But I think, medical marijuana, 100 percent.” Grade: C+
HILLARY CLINTON: The former secretary of state has expressed support for legal access to medical marijuana and more research into the medical benefits of marijuana.
During the Oct. 13 Democratic presidential debate she was asked if she has taken a position on state legalization laws. She said, “No.” Instead, she expressed support for laws that allow legal access to medical marijuana, as well as concern about U.S. incarceration rates, noting that she does not believe people should be imprisoned for marijuana use.
In an interview the following day, she expressed support for allowing states to adopt their own marijuana policies and said she would not want the federal government to interfere in them.
On Nov. 7 and during Wednesday night's town hall debate in New Hampshire, Clinton said she supports reclassifying -- in fact, downgrading -- marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule II drug to remove barriers to researching its medical benefits.
“What I do want is for us to support research into medical marijuana because a lot more states have passed medical marijuana than have legalized marijuana, so we’ve got two different experiences or even experiments going on right now," she said Nov. 7 in The Huffington Post. "… If we’re going to have a lot of states setting up marijuana dispensaries so that people who have some kind of medical need are getting marijuana, we need know what’s the quality of it, how much should you take, what should you avoid if you’re taking other medications.”
Interviewed on MSNBC in October, Clinton said, “I really believe it’s important that states like Colorado lead the way, so that we can learn what works and what doesn’t work. And I would certainly not want the federal government to interfere with the legal decision made by the people of Colorado, and enforced by your elected officials, as to how you should be conducting this business that you have approved. So, no, I want to give you the space and I want other states to learn from you, what works and what doesn’t work.” Grade: B
BERNIE SANDERS: If there is one single issue responsible for unifying so many young people around this progressive 74-year-old U.S. senator from Vermont, it probably is his devotion to ending the criminality of marijuana use in any form.
Sanders has expressed support for allowing states to legalize and regulate marijuana for adult and medical use. He has been critical of the War on Drugs, particularly in the way it's been enforced. He has expressed some concerns about regulating marijuana for adult use, which stem from his concerns about other illegal drugs.
During the first 2016 Democratic presidential debate, Sanders said he would vote “yes” on an initiative to legalize and regulate marijuana for adult use if he were a voter in Nevada, where such a measure is set to appear on the November 2016 ballot.
In November 2015, Sanders proposed legislation that would remove marijuana from the federal drug schedules and ensure states are allowed to regulate it similarly to how they are allowed to regulate alcohol. It would also allow marijuana businesses to access banking services and apply for standard tax deductions that currently are not available because of federal marijuana laws.
On his campaign website, Sanders posts a petition and this: “Someone in the United States is arrested every minute on marijuana charges. Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That’s wrong. That has got to change."
Sanders said on the website Reddit AMA, “The state of Vermont voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and I support that. I have supported the use of medical marijuana. And when I was mayor of Burlington, in a city with a large population, I can tell you very few people were arrested for smoking marijuana. Our police had more important things to do. Colorado has led the effort toward legalizing marijuana and I’m going to watch very closely to see the pluses and minuses of what they have done. I will have more to say about this issue within the coming months.” Grade: A
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith