Image of the Grass Station marijuana shop in Denver
Late last month, Republicans converged on D.C. to meet for CPAC—the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Decades old and sponsored by the American Conservative Union, this event is a requirement for top Republican politicians. It is no surprise that the leading Republican presidential contenders made their way to the big stage.
This year, something odd happened on the way to the podium. Speakers were sprayed with an array of questions on a topic that was somewhat new to the conservative agenda: marijuana policy.
The goal wasn’t to catch candidates in a “gotcha” moment, nor was it pushed by a snarky questioner or audience heckler. Instead, moderators brought up marijuana because candidates wanted to discuss it. In the lead up to and during CPAC, nearly every top tier presidential candidate was pushed on this issue in unprecedented ways. It made its way into speeches and Q&A sessions not as a tongue-in-cheek, light moment, but as one of many serious policies of interest to the CPAC crowd.
I have written before that marijuana policy is a topic that 2016 presidential candidates will not be able to avoid or dismiss with a pithy talking point. It is one that candidates will have to think about and engage. CPAC showed us how true this is.
In some ways marijuana policy is the perfect issue for a presidential campaign. It has far reaching consequences that both parties have reason to engage. Not to mention, it’s an edgy topic that media just can’t resist.

How marijuana policy became a mainstream election issue

Gone are the days where college-age cannabis use was a scandal among White House contenders. Presidential candidates are now open, seemingly honest and far less embarrassed about admitting to smoking pot. And thus gone are the days when candidates like Bill Clinton admitted to smoking pot but said (to great derision), “but I didn’t inhale.” Voters don’t see it as a disqualifier—largely because many voters have experimented with the substance themselves.
Beyond the shrinking taboo of marijuana, recent waves of medical marijuana legalization (now systematized in dozens of states) and recreational legalization (in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C.) present interesting scenarios for federal law.
The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations have responded to state marijuana policies in a variety of ways—from legal challenges to laissez-faire enforcement—but regardless, marijuana has garnered presidential attention. The issue will only become more pressing as more states decide to loosen their laws through decriminalization, medical expansion or outright legalization.
Because marijuana is an issue that no president will be able to ignore, it is an issue no presidential candidate will be able to avoid.

Why Republicans want to talk about marijuana

There are a variety of substantive reasons marijuana policy is an appealing topic for some—if not all—Republican hopefuls. However, there is a central political basis for it: presidential primaries.
In many ways, the GOP is in lock-step on a variety of major issues: health care, budget deficits, taxes, executive power, international trade, etc. As a result, it is hard to find daylight between the candidates. For evidence of this, re-watch some of the 2012 GOP presidential debates. At times, they looked more like a church choir eager to find harmony than a group of adversaries trying to win a race.
Marijuana is different. Views diverge among Republicans. Some candidates, like Rand Paul, have come closer to embracing legalization—at least those efforts at the state level—in an effort to connect to younger and libertarian voters. Others have been far more open-minded about medical marijuana, either endorsing such systems or appearing comfortable with a hands off approach. Still others, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, have taken a more hardline, war-on-drugs approach to the topic.
This diversity is a magnificent thing for Republicans and Republican voters. Among (prospective) candidates who, at times, seem to be policy clones, marijuana offers voters the ability to distinguish positions. As a result, candidates must have positions on the topic.
Beyond political necessity, there are substantive policy reasons why this issue matters to the GOP. Federalism is often popular with the GOP base, and hailing “states rights” is often times a safe bet on uncomfortable issues.
Criminal justice reform has its staunch GOP supporters, particularly among the libertarian wing, and Rand Paul has both taken up that torch within the party and even outside the party to connect with voters on the issue of marijuana. On the flip side, values voters still have a loud voice within the party—particularly in the primary electorate—and some Republicans have carved out firm opposition to marijuana, suggesting that for pot policy their administrations’ position will be simple: Just say no.

Why Democrats want to talk about marijuana

For a Democrat, marijuana policy is an easier call. It offers little risk among the base that largely supports liberalized marijuana laws. It connects well with younger voters. Medical marijuana can help Democratic candidates talk about health care and family life.
It also offers Democrats a topic where they can robustly speak against an activist, intrusive federal government that needs to back off—a rare but welcome opportunity for a left-leaning candidate. In the African-American and Latino communities, Democrats can talk about criminal justice reform, discrimination, economic disparities and the job implications of marijuana arrests.
The issue has easy, natural connections to the large scale issues Democrats are likely to make the centerpiece of a presidential run, and while marijuana will not drive the debate, it will make an easy vehicle to continue the conversation on race, equality, opportunity, economics and justice.

Why marijuana will matter in the general election

Marijuana policy will likely play a noticeable role in the general election, too. The issue has implications for states that truly matter in presidential campaigns. Recreational legalization is a reality in swing states like Colorado. Other marijuana measures may appear on ballots in which presidential candidates frequently look for votes (Florida, Maine) or campaign money (California).
In addition, medical marijuana policy—now the law in many places—means that swing state voters will be interested in what their next president will have to say on the topic.
The issue engages a variety of issues that reach beyond marijuana itself, posing serious leadership questions for any prospective chief executive. It involves issues of law and regulatory enforcement, federal research policy, medical and pharmaceutical policy, state-federal relations, criminal justice, privacy, agriculture, commerce, small business policy and banking and financial regulations.
These are issues no presidential candidate can avoid, even if talking marijuana policy isn’t atop their to-do list. The nature of the issue and the penumbra of policies it involves forces the issue into the 2016 conversation, regarless of whether Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton or Scott Walker want it to be.
In addition, the media will not be able to resist the temptation to discuss it. Thus far, media figures ranging from Sean Hannity to Christiane Amanpour have asked prospective candidates about not just marijuana use, but marijuana policy (a huge distinction compared to previous presidential campaigns).
That appetite for something new, something edgy, something with public appeal will only grow as the campaign season rages on. CPAC showed that marijuana policy is a serious issue for candidates, and the 2016 presidential race will demonstrate how big the issue has become.
John Hudak is a fellow in Governance Studies and managing editor, FixGov Blog at the Brookings Institution. This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution website.
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