Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulGOP hasn’t reached out to centrist Dem senators Overnight Healthcare: GOP looks for ObamaCare path as right lashes out GOP looks for ObamaCare path as right lashes out MORE (R-Ky.) is poised to become the first top-tier presidential candidate from either party to make marijuana reform a major campaign issue.
Paul, who will announce his White House bid on Tuesday, has argued forcefully that states should be allowed to adopt their own policies on the use of medical marijuana without fear of federal interference.
He’s separately offered support for the growth of industrial hemp, and worked to win Senate passage of legislation in 2014 to allow states to grow hemp for research.
More broadly, Paul has called for a serious review of the nation’s policies on illegal drugs. He’s an outspoken critic of decades-long prison sentences for the sale or possession of marijuana, which he has called “ridiculous.”
The positions have received favorable notice from the pro-marijuana movement, which could help Paul draw young, libertarian fans to his brand and build the case that he is the best GOP candidate to take on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, in 2016.
“His message on marijuana reform is going to be very attractive to young people and communities of color,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s definitely going to force Hillary Clinton, or whoever is the Democratic nominee, toward that direction, because they’ll be worried about losing their base.”
Of course, Paul’s policies on pot could also backfire with older, more conservative Republicans in the GOP primaries.
While many younger Republican voters are evolving on marijuana reform, older voters still have strong reservations about pot, which could be a significant “hurdle” for Paul in the primaries, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who served as an adviser to John McCain in 2008.
“Older Republican voters are not exactly ecstatic about the idea of legalizing marijuana,” O’Connell said.
And Paul’s policies have their limits. He has not spoken out in favor of legalizing marijuana, though late last year he expressed support for giving local governments discretion on the issue.
“I really haven’t taken a stand on … the actual legalization,” he told CQ/Roll Call in November. “I haven’t really taken a stand on that, but I’m against the federal government telling them they can’t.”
Marijuana advocates believe the times are changing.
Colorado, Washington state and the District of Columbia have all passed measures legalizing marijuana. Many advocates think momentum is behind them, and they see Paul as smartly positioning himself to benefit from the nation’s changing mores.
“We have never really seen a major presidential contender make this a signature piece of their platform before Rand Paul,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority.
“I think they were sort of afraid of this issue,” he added. “It was marginalized, even laughed at; it wasn’t respected as a serious issue.”
Paul hasn’t been afraid to take shots at other candidates over marijuana.
In January, he ripped former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) for hypocrisy after a report in The Boston Globe said Bush was a heavy marijuana smoker in college.
“You would think he’d have a little more understanding then,” Paul told The Hill while en route to a political event in Texas.
“He was even opposed to medical marijuana,” Paul said of Bush, a potential rival in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. “This is a guy who now admits he smoked marijuana but he wants to put people in jail who do.
“I think that’s the real hypocrisy, is that people on our side, which include a lot of people who made mistakes growing up, admit their mistakes but now still want to put people in jail for that.”
Paul’s support for marijuana reform has given a degree of credibility to the broader debate, advocates say.
“Marijuana clearly has arrived as an issue at the forefront of mainstream American politics,” Angell said. “The fact that Rand Paul is speaking out about this, and that he’s being praised and not criticized for it, is setting an example for other politicians.”