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 TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE supports granting access to medical marijuana and letting states decide the issue.
Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Memo: Conservatives change their tune on big government The CDC's Title 42 order fuels racism and undermines public health Ocasio-Cortez goes indoor skydiving for her birthday 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 ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle 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 RubioRepublicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' 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 PaulVaccine 'resisters' are a real problem Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Journalist Dave Levinthal discusses 'uptick' in congressional stock trade violations 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 GillibrandOvernight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Biden signs bill to help victims of 'Havana syndrome' Lawmakers using leadership PACs as 'slush funds' to live lavish lifestyles: report 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 McCainVirginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda Sinema's no Manchin, no McCain and no maverick Progressives say go big and make life hard for GOP 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.