By Phillip Smith
With legalization initiatives looming this year and next in states as diverse as Michigan, Ohio, Maine, Massachusetts, California, Nevada, and Arizona, marijuana policy is most definitely on the agenda in the 2016 presidential election campaign.
Candidates and presumed candidates from both parties have staked out a wide array of positions on the issue (although none have taken the bold step of actually advocating for legalization). Now, thanks to the Marijuana Policy Project, we have a scorecard to keep them all straight.
The pro-legalization advocacy group has released its Voters Guide to the 2016 Presidential Race, detailing the candidates’ positions on marijuana policy and assigning them grades based on where they stand. The candidates were graded on actions they have taken and statements they have made indicating their support for ending pot prohibition, allowing legal access to medical marijuana and defending states’ rights to set their own marijuana policies.
“Most Americans recognize that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and they think it should be made legal for adults,” said MPP spokesperson Mason Tvert. “Voters should know which candidates support rolling back prohibition and which ones are fighting to maintain it. People are becoming increasingly wary of the federal government’s role in our nation’s marijuana policies.”
Protecting the ability of states to set their own marijuana policies will be increasingly important in coming years, Tvert said, adding that, ”Several states are likely to adopt new approaches to marijuana policy between now and when our next president takes office. She or he should be willing to work with Congress to ease the tension between state and federal marijuana laws. If states are to be our nation’s laboratories of democracy, our next president needs to respect their right to experiment. They should also be committed to basing marijuana laws on science and evidence instead of ideology and politics.”
While Democratic candidates found themselves in the middle of the road (with grades ranging from B to D), Republicans were all over the letter-grade spectrum, with Rand Paul pulling down an A- (it seems you’d have to actually support legalization to get an A grade from MPP), and two GOP candidates, Christ Christie and Rick Santorum getting flunked with Fs.
“Some of these guys who tout states’ rights, fiscal responsibility, and getting the government out of people’s private lives want to use federal tax dollars to punish adults for using marijuana in states that have made it legal,” Tvert said. “They say using marijuana is immoral or just too dangerous to allow, but serve alcohol, a more dangerous substance, at their fundraisers. The hypocrisy is astonishing.”
Here are the candidates, by party and grade.
Lincoln Chafee, Grade: B+
The former Rhode Island governor signed a decriminalization bill into law in 2013 and has expressed a willingness to explore the potential benefits of regulating and taxing marijuana, but he wants to wait and see what happens in states that have adopted such laws.
Chafee on marijuana and drug policy:
“We’ll see what comes out of the legislature. We’re just still putting in the medical marijuana component and we’ll certainly see what’s happening in Colorado … Certainly the revenue is enticing for all governors. Somebody was saying to me back with the bad weather we’ve had back home, and all the potholes, we should have the revenue go to infrastructure. ‘Pot for potholes.'” —Huffington Post, Feb. 24, 2014
“I think it should be an international discussion over our drug policy, whether its winning or losing the war on drugs, and the destabilizing effect the illicit drug trade has […] It should be an international discussion: is this working?” —YouTube, April 2013
Jim Webb, Grade: B+
The former Virginia senator and Reagan-era secretary of the Navy has come out for marijuana decriminalization and is an outspoken opponent of the war on drugs. As a senator, he introduced legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system.
Webb on marijuana and drug policy:
[In response to a question about whether marijuana legalization would be part of his criminal justice reform efforts:] ”I think everything should be on the table, and we specifically say that we want recommendations on how to deal with drug policy in our country. And we’ll get it to the people who have the credibility and the expertise and see what they come up with. [Asked specifically about regulating marijuana:] I think they should do a very careful examination of all aspects of drug policy. I’ve done a couple of very extensive hearings on this, so we’ll wait to see what they say about that.” —Huffington Post, April 27, 2009
“He also shied away from supporting or opposing marijuana legalization, calling state laws ‘an interesting national experiment’ that should be allowed to play out further.” —Washington Post, March 10, 2015
Bernie Sanders, Grade: B
The insurgent Vermont senator has been a longtime critic of the war on drugs and supports medical marijuana, but has so far shied away from supporting pot legalization because of his concerns about other illegal drugs.
Sanders on marijuana and drug policy:
“I have real concerns about implications of the war on drugs. We have been engaged in it for decades now with a huge cost and the destruction of a whole lot of lives of people who were never involved in any violent activities.”
“I’m going to look at the issue. It’s not that I support it or don’t support it. To me it is not one of the major issues facing this country. I’ll look at it. I think it has a lot of support and I’ll be talking to young people and others about the issues. But there are two sides to a story.” —TIME, March 4, 2015
“The state of Vermont voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and I support that. I have supported the use of medical marijuana. And when I was mayor of Burlington, in a city with a large population, I can tell you very few people were arrested for smoking marijuana. Our police had more important things to do. Colorado has led the effort toward legalizing marijuana and I’m going to watch very closely to see the pluses and minuses of what they have done. I will have more to say about this issue within the coming months.” — Reddit AMA, May 19, 2015
Hillary Clinton, Grade: B-
The Democratic favorite says she is open to more research on medical marijuana and that she supports Colorado and Washington’s rights to set their own marijuana policies. She says she is interested in seeing the results of their experiment before taking a position for or against legalization.
Clinton on marijuana policy: ”I don’t think we’ve done enough research yet although I think for people who are in extreme medical conditions and have anecdotal evidence that it works, there should be availability under appropriate circumstances.”
“States are laboratories of democracy. I want to wait and see what the evidence is.” —CNN, June 2014
Martin O’Malley, Grade: C+
The former Maryland governor has repeatedly spoken out against using marijuana for any reason, including medical, but he also signed into law in 2014 bills that decriminalized pot possession and established a medical marijuana program.
O’Malley on marijuana and marijuana policy:
“I’m not much in favor of it. We’ve seen what drug addiction has done to the people of our state, to the people of our city. This drug, its use and its abuse can be a gateway.” —Mark Steiner radio show, Jan. 7, 2014
“As a young prosecutor, I once thought that decriminalizing the possession of marijuana might undermine the public will necessary to combat drug violence and improve public safety. I now think that [it]is an acknowledgment of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health.” —Washington Post, April 7, 2014
Joe Biden, Grade: D
The vice president has not formally announced, but is still considered a potential contender. Throughout his career, Biden has been a hardline drug warrior, spearheading legislation that created the drug czar’s office and sponsoring the RAVE Act, as well as backing bills to increase the mandatory minimum sentence for federal marijuana offenses. He continues to oppose the legalization of marijuana, but has spoken in favor of reducing enforcement of federal marijuana policies.
Biden on marijuana and drug policy:
“I think the idea of focusing significant resources on interdicting or convicting people for smoking marijuana is a waste of our resources. That’s different than [legalization]. Our policy for our administration is still not legalization, and that is [and]continues to be our policy.”
“I am not only the guy who did the crime bill and the drug czar, but I’m also the guy who spent years when I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee and chairman of [the Senate Foreign Relations Committee], trying to change drug policy relative to cocaine, for example, crack and powder.” —TIME, Feb. 6, 2014
“I still believe it’s a gateway drug. I’ve spent a lot of my life as chairman of the Judiciary Committee dealing with this. I think it would be a mistake to legalize.” —ABC News, Dec. 2010
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) gets the highest grade. (senate.gov)
Rand Paul, Grade: A-
The libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky has been a vocal supporter of states’ rights to set their own marijuana policies, as well as decriminalizing small-time pot possession. He is also a sponsor of a bill that would let states set their own medical marijuana policies without federal interference, a bill that would let marijuana businesses gain access to the banking system, and a bill seeking drug sentencing reforms.
Paul on marijuana policy:
“I’m not for having the federal government get involved. I really haven’t taken a stand on … the actual legalization. I haven’t really taken a stand on that, but I’m against the federal government telling them they can’t.” —Roll Call, Nov. 4, 2014
“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. I want to lessen the criminal penalties on it.”
Rick Perry, Grade: B
The former Texas governor opposes marijuana legalization, but supports states’ rights to set their own marijuana policies and has voiced support for reducing penalties for pot possession.
Perry on marijuana and drug policy:
“After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can’t change what happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade.” —Washington Post, Jan. 23, 2014
“I am a staunch promoter of the 10th Amendment. States should be able to set their own policies on abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, then people will decide where they want to live.” … [S]tates should be allowed [to decide whether to legalize marijuana].” —U.S. News & World Report, Jan. 23, 2014
Ted Cruz, Grade: C+
The junior senator from Texas opposes marijuana legalization, but believes states should have the right to set their own marijuana policies.
Cruz on marijuana and drug policy:
“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.” —CPAC, Feb. 26, 2015
“I don’t support drug legalization, but I do support the Constitution. I think individual states can choose to adopt it. So if Texas had it on the ballot, I’d vote against it, but I respect the authority of states to follow different policies.” —Texas Tribune, March 24, 2015
“That’s a legitimate question for the states to make a determination. And the citizens of Colorado and Washington State have come to a different conclusion. They’ve decided that they want to legalize it. I think it is appropriate for the federal government to recognize that the citizens of those states have made that decision. One of the benefits of it … is we can now watch and see what happens in Colorado and Washington State.” —Hugh Hewitt Show, April 16, 2015
Carly Fiorina, Grade: C+
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO does not favor legalizing medical marijuana for any purpose, including medical use, but has recently supported decriminalization and the ability of states to set their own marijuana policies.
Fiorina on marijuana and drug policy:
“I remember when I had cancer and my doctor said, ‘Do you have any interest in medicinal marijuana?’ I did not. And they said, good, because marijuana today is such a complex compound, we don’t really know what’s in it, we don’t really know how it interacts with other substances or other medicines.” —Slate, Feb. 2015
“I’m opposed to Prop 19 and the legalization of marijuana. Sending billions of dollars in new tax revenues to Sacramento is exactly the problem … because Sacramento has a spending problem and will continue to spend the money we send them.” —10 Questions, October 2010
“Drug addiction shouldn’t be criminalized. We need to treat it appropriately.” —Washington Post, May 4, 2015
“I don’t support legalized marijuana for a whole host of reasons, including the fact that this is a very complex chemical substance, and when we tell young people it is just like drinking a beer, we are not telling them the truth. But I think Colorado voters made a choice. I don’t support their choice, but I do support their right to make that choice.” —The Hill, June 9, 2015
George Pataki, Grade: C
The former New York governor does not support legalization for any reason, including medical, but has come out for the ability of states to set their own marijuana policies.
Pataki on marijuana policy: “I am not in favor of legalizing marijuana, but having said that I am a great believer that states are the laboratory of democracy.” —Bloomberg, Jan. 14, 2014
“So I would be very strongly inclined to change the federal law to give states, when they’ve had a referendum, the opportunity with respect to marijuana to decriminalize it, except for two factors. One is we have to know that neighboring states or the rest of the country are not being subjected to illegal marijuana because of the free selling of it and marketing in those states, and second with respect to young people.” —HughHewitt.com, April 23, 2015
Donald Trump, Grade: C
The businessman and television personality supported legalizing all drugs in 1990, but has since changed his tune. He opposes marijuana legalization, but supports access to medical marijuana and has suggested support for letting states decide their own pot policies.
Trump on marijuana and drug policy:
“I’d say [regulating marijuana]is bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it’s bad and I feel strongly about that. [In response to states’ rights argument] If they vote for it, they vote for it. But, you know, they’ve got a lot of problems going on in Colorado right now. Big problems. But I think, medical marijuana, 100%.” —C-SPAN, Feb. 27, 2015
“We’re losing badly the war on drugs. You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.” —Miami Herald, April 14, 1990
Lindsey Graham, Grade: C
The South Carolina senator opposes marijuana legalization, but supports legal access to medical marijuana. Graham has not taken a strong position on states’ rights to set their own pot policies, and he voted against a bill designed to block the Justice Department from interfering in medical marijuana states (though he later tried unsuccessfully to switch his vote).
Graham on marijuana policy:
When asked whether he supports letting states decide or keeping marijuana illegal federally: ”I don’t see a real need to change the law up here [in DC]. If marijuana is half as bad as alcohol, that’s probably enough reason to keep it illegal.” —Just Say Now, Aug. 10, 2010
“I’m against legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. But when it comes to medical marijuana and this [CBD] oil, I think politicians should embrace what makes sense. When it comes to issues like this, I don’t want to be academic in thought. This is about people. This is about families with sick children. Why should someone in my position get in the way of helping a child, if you can reasonably and logically do it?” WBTV, Feb. 24, 2014
Bobby Jindal, Grade: C
The Louisiana governor has offered limited support for medical marijuana, but opposes legalization and does not support states’ rights to set their own policies. Just last week, he refused clemency for a black man sentenced to 13 years in prison for possessing two joints, saying he hadn’t served at least 10 years. As a member of Congress, he voted against measures trying to block federal interference in medical marijuana states in 2005, 2006, and 2007.
Jindal on marijuana policy:
“I don’t think anyone should be legalizing marijuana, I think that’s a mistake. When it comes to the issue of medical marijuana, I’ve said as long as it’s done under tight restrictions, I can be okay with that.” —ABC News, Feb. 26, 2015
[When asked if he would “bring down the hammer” on pot stores in states with legalization laws] ”I don’t think you can ignore federal law. Federal law is still the law of the land. It still needs to be enforced.” —Washington Times, April 1, 2015
John Kasich, Grade: C
The sitting Ohio governor is “totally opposed” to marijuana legalization, including for medical purposes, but would allow states to set their own marijuana policies.
“In my state and across this country, if I happened to be president, I would lead a significant campaign down at the grassroots level to stomp these drugs out of our country.” —HughHewitt.com, April 21, 2015
“On medical marijuana, doctors that I know tell me we don’t need that, there are other ways to [treat pain].” OhioCapitalBlog, March 30, 2012
Jeb Bush, Grade: D
The former Florida governor is a long-time drug warrior who sits on the advisory board of the Drug Free America Foundation, a radical anti-pot group. He opposes marijuana legalization for any purposes, but has suggested states have the right to set their own pot policies.
Bush on marijuana policy: “I thought [legalizing marijuana in Colorado]was a bad idea, but states ought to have that right to do it. I would have voted ‘no’ if I was in Colorado.” —C-SPAN, Feb. 27, 2015
Mike Huckabee, Grade: D
The former Arkansas governor and Fox News host opposes marijuana legalization for any purpose, including medical use.
Huckabee on marijuana policy:
“You know, I don’t support the idea of legalizing marijuana, so I want to be honest about that. I don’t think that there are as many wonderful things to come from it as there are some dangers to come from it. You know, if they’re targeting people [who use marijuana for medical purposes], I don’t know if that makes good sense. But I wouldn’t go and say, ‘You shouldn’t follow the law.'” [He is then asked whether he would stop the federal government’s raids on medical marijuana dispensaries, to which he responds:] ”Probably not.” —C-SPAN, January 2008
“I think the question is would I favor the legalization [of medical marijuana]at a federal level. And until there’s some stronger scientific evidence I’m unlikely to do that. I don’t support the idea of legalizing marijuana.” —NH Marijuana Policy Initiative, October 2007
“Those who argued that legalizing marijuana would result in a boom in tax revenues have some preliminary proof. … But at what cost? The money is earmarked for youth prevention services, substance abuse treatment and public health. But what is a young person supposed to think when the state says, ‘Don’t do drugs…even though everyone around you is…and the same authority figures who tell you it’s bad not only condone it, but are also making a big profit off it’?” —Facebook post, March 13, 2014
Ben Carson, Grade: D
The author and retired neurosurgeon, a hero of social conservatives, rejects marijuana legalization and cites the discredited “gateway theory” for doing so, but has expressed some openness toward medical marijuana.
Carson on marijuana policy:
“I think medical use of marijuana in compassionate cases certainly has been proven to be useful. But recognize that marijuana is what’s known as a gateway drug. It tends to be a starter drug for people who move onto heavier duty drugs—sometimes legal, sometimes illegal —and I don’t think this is something that we really want for our society. You know, we’re gradually just removing all the barriers to hedonistic activity and you know, it’s just, we’re changing so rapidly to a different type of society and nobody is getting a chance to discuss it because, you know, it’s taboo. It’s politically incorrect. You’re not supposed to talk about these things.” Fox News, Jan. 2, 2014
Marco Rubio, Grade: D
The young Florida senator staunchly opposes marijuana legalization, but has expressed some support for medicinal use of non-psychoactive forms of medical marijuana (CBD cannabis oil). He has wobbled on the states’ rights issue.
Rubio on marijuana policy:
“If there are medicinal uses of marijuana that don’t have the elements that are mind-altering or create the high but do alleviate whatever condition it may be they are trying to alleviate, that is something I would be open to.” —Tampa Bay Times, July 30, 2014
“The bottom line is, I believe that adding yet another mind-altering substance to something that’s legal is not good for the country, I understand there are people that have different views on it, but I feel strongly about that.” —Yahoo! News, May 19, 2014
[Spokesman]: “Senator Rubio believes legalization of marijuana for recreational use is a bad idea, and that the states that are doing it may well come to regret it. Of course, states can make decisions about what laws they wish to apply within their own borders.” —Politico, Jan. 31, 2015
[When asked if he would enforce federal law and shut down regulation in Colorado:] “Yes. Yes, I think, well, I think we need to enforce our federal laws. Now do states have a right to do what they want? They don’t agree with it, but they have their rights. But they don’t have a right to write federal policy as well. It is, I don’t believe we should be in the business of legalizing additional intoxicants in this country for the primary reason that when you legalize something, what you’re sending a message to young people is it can’t be that bad, because if it was that bad, it wouldn’t be legal.” —Hugh Hewitt Radio Show, April 14, 2015
Scott Walker, Grade: D
The Wisconsin governor opposes either decriminalization or legalization because marijuana is a “gateway” drug, but did sign a limited bill allowing for the use of non-psychoactive CBD cannabis oil by children.
Walker on marijuana policy:
“Now there are people who abuse (alcohol), no doubt about it, but I think it’s a big jump between someone having a beer and smoking marijuana.” —Huffington Post, Feb. 13, 2014
“From my standpoint, I still have concerns about making it legal. I understand from the libertarian standpoint, the argument out there. I still have concerns. I’m not, unlike the President, I still have difficulty visualizing marijuana and alcohol in the same vein.” —CNN, Jan. 30, 2014
[Discussing a Wisconsin county sheriff’ who shares his position on marijuana legalization:] “Even there, the Democrat sheriff said to me last year when this issue came up, ‘Whatever you do, please do not sign the legalization of marijuana.’ This was a guy who spent his whole career in law enforcement. He was liberal on a whole lot of other issues. But he said it’s a gateway drug.” —Wisconsin State Journal, March 31, 2015
Chris Christie, Grade: F
The New Jersey governor not only opposes marijuana legalization, but has spoken out repeatedly against states that have legalized it. He opposed the New Jersey medical marijuana law, which was passed before he became governor, and has hampered its effectiveness with strict limitations he has imposed.
Christie on marijuana policy:
“[Marijuana legalization]’s not gonna come while I’m here … See if you want to live in a major city in Colorado where there’s head shops popping up on every corner and people flying into your airport just to come and get high. To me, it’s just not the quality of life we want to have here in the state of New Jersey and there’s no tax revenue that’s worth that.” —International Business Times, July 25, 2014
[In response to the question,”If you were president, how would you treat states that have legalized marijuana?”] ”Probably not well. Not well, but we’ll see. We’ll have to see what happens.” —Huffington Post, June 20, 2014
[When asked if he would enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized and regulated marijuana:] ”Absolutely, I will crack down and not permit it.” …
“States should not be permitted to sell it and profit [from legalizing marijuana].” —Huffington Post, April 14, 2015
Rick Santorum, Grade: F
The former US senator from Pennsylvania rejects marijuana legalization for any purpose, does not believe states have the right to set their own pot policies, and supports enforcing federal drug laws even in states that have voted to legalize it.
Santorum on marijuana and drug policy:
“I think Colorado is violating the federal law. And if we have controlled substances, they’re controlled substances for a reason. 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.” —HughHewitt.com, April 16, 2015
“The federal government does have a role in making sure that drug use—that states don’t go out and legalize drugs. That there are drugs that are hazardous to people, that do cause great harm to the individual as well as society to the whole. And the federal government has a role in making sure those drugs are not in this country and not available and that people who use them illegally are held accountable. Ideally states should enforce these laws but the federal government has a role because it is a public health issue for the country.” —Santorum campaign event, Jan. 9, 2012
(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org’s lobbying arm, Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)