Marijuana Emerges as Issue That Blurs Conservative, Liberal Lines

Monday, 07 Apr 2014 11:03 AM

By Joe Battaglia

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The debate over legalizing marijuana for medical and even recreational purposes is blurring conservative and liberal lines.

With polls showing a slight majority of Americans now supporting the legalization of the drug, especially younger voters, and billionaire campaign financiers such as George Soros funding the pro-pot movement, a number of candidates are finding themselves at odds with their own party's positions.

Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, called marijuana "a sleeper issue," in the upcoming campaign and noted its trickiness, telling The Wall Street Journal, "All of a sudden the ground is shifting, and it's uncomfortable and complicated. Marijuana has become an issue that candidates have got to pay attention to."

Attention is on Maryland, where the state House of Delegates voted April 5 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot. That leaves Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, the onetime tough-on-crime mayor of Baltimore, with a difficult decision.

O'Malley has said he is "not much in favor" of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and called the drug "a gateway to even more harmful behavior," according to The Washington Post.

O'Malley is not alone in bucking the push by Democratic activists to follow the leads of Colorado and Washington in approving recreational marijuana use.

According to The New York Times, California Gov. Jerry Brown has said his state "ought to kind of watch and see how things go in Colorado" before approving a similar measure. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, meanwhile, said of his state: "Quite frankly, I don’t think we are ready, or want to go down that road."

During the 2008 primary, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now widely considered the Democratic front-runner for 2016, said, "I don't think we should decriminalize, but we ought to do research into what, if any, medical benefits it has." Since then, she has been mum on the issue.

Republicans are facing a similar political conundrum on the road to 2016.
According to the Journal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said he is open to liberalizing marijuana laws, but at the same time told attendees of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, "We're not a soft-on-crime state."

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has also come out against jail time for pot smokers, while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he is open to supervised medical marijuana use, according to the Journal.

Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that favors decriminalization of marijuana, told the Times, "The fear of being soft on drugs, soft on marijuana, soft on crime is woven into the DNA of American politicians."

Some Republican presidential contenders have been staunchly opposed to liberalized marijuana laws. Gov. Chris Christie, who has complained about being "saddled" with New Jersey's medical-marijuana law signed by Democratic predecessor John Corzine, told GOP donors last month in Las Vegas: "I don't favor legalization. I don't favor recreational use. I don't favor decriminalization. And I don't favor the use of marijuana as a medicine."

At a town hall meeting in Sayreville on Thursday, Christie engaged in a heated exchange with the mother of an epileptic teen over why he wouldn’t allow people over 18 years old access to medical marijuana in edible forms.

Story continues below video.




Other Republicans are mixed on the issue. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has remained open to a debate on drug policy but has been critical of President Barack Obama's unwillingness to arrest recreational pot users under federal law. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, declined to answer when asked in February if he had ever smoked pot, and has remained neutral on a November referendum in his state allowing medical marijuana.

Ed Rollins, a former adviser to presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, told the Journal that endorsing relaxed marijuana policy is unlikely to win over early conservative voters.

"You can make an intellectual argument at a cocktail party, but out on the campaign trail, it's a more emotional issue," he said. "I don't think arguing about rehabilitation-versus-prison will be a winning issue in a Republican primary."

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