Monday, February 2, 2015

Other than Senator Rand Paul, are any GOP leaders likely to become supportive of marijuana reform?

The question in the title to this post is my first reaction to this notable Politico piece headlined "Is pot the new gay marriage for the GOP?; Republicans struggle to find their footing on an issue that resonates with younger voters." Here are excerpts:

Marijuana is shaping up to be the new gay marriage of GOP politics — most Republicans would rather not talk about it, except to punt to the states. But when it comes to the 2016 presidential race, a series of legalization ballot initiatives — and a certain outspoken Kentucky senator — could make it harder for the Republican field to avoid the conversation....

Marijuana may not stimulate the same kind of passion as the debate over same-sex marriage. Still, a majority of Americans support legalizing pot, and young people — who tend to turn out more for presidential elections than midterms — are especially keen on it.

The “leave it to the states” stance allows potential GOP candidates to stake out a relatively safe middle ground between an older conservative base that disapproves of marijuana use and a general-election electorate and libertarian wing that prefers legalization. The states’ rights approach also allows GOP candidates to express some openness to medical marijuana and criminal justice reform and argue against devoting costly resources for federal enforcement. It’s also a position many in the prospective GOP field have taken on same-sex marriage....

The pro-legalization lobby, buoyed by recent successes, is taking an aggressive state-based approach in the next two years and believes 2016 will be favorable for the ballot initiatives. Advocates don’t see anyone in the GOP field pushing back too hard. “No one’s been a problem for us,” said Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Largely, major presidential candidates will do their best to avoid the issue,” added his colleague Malik Burnett.

Some advocates have downplayed the parallels between same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. While recreational cannabis has found its success on the ballot, gay marriage has been decided mostly in state legislatures and courts. Still, both movements have successfully used state-based models, increasing pressure for federal action. The Supreme Court will decide later this year whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.

One Republican outspoken on marijuana is Paul, who has made major overtures to young people and minorities. The Kentucky senator, a favorite in the GOP’s libertarian wing, is the highest-profile Republican to support federal decriminalization and the party’s only potential presidential candidate to do so.

Paul has sponsored legislation aimed at preventing the federal government from cracking down on the medical marijuana industry in states where it’s legal. He’s teamed up with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to introduce sentencing reform legislation. He recently co-sponsored a Senate bill to legalize industrial hemp — a less-potent sibling of marijuana. “I don’t want to put our kids in prison for it,” Paul said of marijuana in December. “So if your kid was caught selling marijuana or growing enough that it’s a felony conviction, they could be in jail for an extended period of time. They also lose their ability to be employable. So I want to change all of that.”

The senator’s stance could prove a vexing problem not just for fellow Republicans but also Hillary Clinton. The likely Democratic 2016 frontrunner has been relatively quiet on the issue, asking for a “wait and see” approach to the experiments in Colorado and Washington state and offering some support for medical marijuana. “He is going to force other candidates, whether it’s in the Republican primary or the general, to take positions on these issues,” Collins said.

Paul has been so outspoken that at least one GOP strategist believed he supports legalization. But he doesn’t, and he often speaks negatively about cannabis use, which irks some legalization advocates who otherwise have a favorable impression of the senator (the Marijuana Policy Project donated $2,500 to Paul’s PAC in the 2014 cycle). When asked about Paul’s efforts on marijuana, spokesman Brian Darling immediately noted: “He’s been pretty clear that marijuana is bad for people, but they should not have their lives ruined for smoking it.”

Strategists argue that Paul’s reluctance to embrace full legalization and insistence on warning about the dangers of marijuana use indicate he doesn’t want to anger a key segment of the GOP base. “Part of the reason why Paul finds himself in this conundrum is the amount of older voters we have in the Republican primary,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, noting that Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy stances already have Republican voters over 50 eying him warily.

I strongly believe that a GOP message concerning marijuana reform that was based not only on states rights, but also on small government, free markets and personal freedom and family values could and should resonate with all segments of the GOP base if pitched correctly. Whether and how GOP leaders other than Senator Paul come to see this possibility is one of the most interesting political stories to watch closely over the next couple of years.

Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, Political perspective on reforms, Polling data and results, Who decides | Permalink


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