GOP contenders just saying no to fight against pot

GOP presidential candidates are by and large staying away from the debate over marijuana legalization, an issue once embraced by Republican occupants of the White House.

They have stayed largely silent as support for legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana has gained public support.
 
Fifty-three percent of adults nationwide say marijuana should be legal, while 43 percent say the opposite, according to a CBS News poll from April. 
 
A Pew Research Center poll from March found a similar margin.
 
Colorado, Washington State, Oregon and Alaska have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while another five will vote on the question in 2016.
 
Only New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and long-shot candidate former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) support a federal crackdown on state policies legalizing cannabis, which is still classified as a Schedule I drug — the most dangerous category, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
 
Christie delivered residents of Colorado, which passed a legalization initiative in 2012, a blunt warning earlier this summer.
 
“If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it. As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws. That’s lawlessness,” he said.
 
Other candidates have soft-pedaled the issue, preferring to focus on the economy, the federal deficit, national security and immigration.
 
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush opposed a medical marijuana ballot initiative in his home state last year, but he said at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year that he supports the right of states to set their own policies.
 
Bush has admitted to smoking marijuana while attending Phillips Academy, an elite boarding school in Andover, Mass.
 
Front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE supports granting access to medical marijuana and letting states decide the issue.
 
Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke gives 'a definitive no' to possibility of running in 2020 Vicente Fox endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race Beto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' MORE (R-Texas), who is making a hard play for Tea Party and other base voters, say states’ rights should take precedence in deciding how to address the contradiction between federal and local policies.
 
“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,” he told conservatives at CPAC, echoing language used by Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWatchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US Republicans cancel airtime in swing Vegas district The Democratic Donald Trump is coming MORE, who’s also alluded to “laboratories of Democracy.”

Dan Riffle, federal policy director at the Marijuana Policy Project, sees a trend emerging in the crowded field of GOP presidential hopefuls.

“Most of the field has been asked about this and has answered the question a couple of times and has said, ‘I personally am opposed to legalization but this is a state issue and states can set their own policy and I’m not going to use federal resources to go after them,' ” he said. 
 
He noted that Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump GOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia On The Money: Treasury official charged with leaking info on ex-Trump advisers | Trump to seek 5 percent budget cut from Cabinet members | Mnuchin to decide by Thursday on attending Saudi conference MORE (R-Fla.) has equivocated on the issue.
 
“Every time Rubio himself has been asked, he’s kinda had it both ways by saying states can set their own policy but they can’t set federal policy and the federal government has to enforce federal law,” he said.
 
Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs” in 1971, accentuating the divide between the anti-war flower power movement and the silent majority that he relied on to win a landslide election the following year.
 
First lady Nancy Reagan urged the nation to “just say no” during her husband’s first term, when prosecutions for drug-related crimes began to skyrocket.
 
Both Republican leaders drew a sharp contrast with Democrats of the time, such as Jimmy Carter, who favored decriminalizing marijuana.


Times have changed as attitudes about cannabis consumption have softened among the Republican base.
 
“What I’m seeing is most people are avoiding the issue,” said Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant and pollster. “In most polling I’ve seen, especially in Florida, it’s divided about a third, a third and a third.
 
“A third says legalize it, a third says legalize it only for medical and a third is for no legalization at all. It’s a highly contentious issue,” he said of attitudes among the Republican base.
 
He also noted that the issue is much less salient among conservatives than it was in the 80s and 90s, when crime was a much bigger concern.
 
The current trend, as epitomized by Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Noisy democracy, or rude people behaving like children? Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks MORE (R-Ky.), another White House hopeful, is toward criminal justice reform, as a growing number of experts recognize that high incarceration rates for non-violent drug offenders put a drain on state and local budgets and impact the ability of ex-felons to contribute to the economy and society.


Paul has been the most outspoken GOP candidate in calling for the decriminalization of marijuana, even visiting Denver to hold a fundraiser with leaders of the multi-million-dollar cannabis industry.
 
He has teamed up with Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandAffordable housing set for spotlight of next presidential campaign Overnight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Senators seek US intel on journalist's disappearance | Army discharged over 500 immigrant recruits in one year | Watchdog knocks admiral over handling of sexual harassment case Pentagon watchdog knocks top admiral for handling of sexual harassment case MORE (N.Y.) to end the federal prohibition on medical marijuana, which is now legal in 23 states.
 
He opposes the federal government getting involved in state legalization efforts and has repeatedly talked about the damage severe penalties can have on the lives of non-violent drug offenders and their ability to contribute to society.
 
He frequently tells reporters and potential supporters about an acquaintance from Kentucky who grew pot plants in college 30 years ago and still can’t vote.
 
Santorum, a staunch social conservative, is one of two outliers — along with Christie — in the Republican pack.
 
“The federal law is there for a reason, and the states shouldn’t have the option to violate federal law. As Abraham Lincoln said, you know, states don’t have the right to wrong,” he told conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt earlier this year.
 
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcConnell: GOP could try to repeal ObamaCare again after midterms Comey donates maximum amount to Democratic challenger in Virginia House race Live coverage: McSally clashes with Sinema in Arizona Senate debate MORE’s 2008 presidential campaign, said Christie and Santorum, who are polling at 3 and 1 percent nationwide, respectively, are trying to gain traction.
 
“It’s not as strong a focal point issue for the Republican base,” he said. “It’s two candidates trying to grab oxygen that Trump has eaten up and trying to portray themselves as law-and-order candidates who will bring stability back to the nation.”
 
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has 11 percent support in an average of nationwide polls, has offered mild support for medical marijuana but has warned that it’s a gateway drug.  
 
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina says she supports decriminalization and letting states set their own policies.
 
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee opposes legalizing marijuana, even for medical use, but said in 2008 he would probably not support federal raids on dispensaries.