Republicans struggle to find their footing on an issue that resonates with younger voters.
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Marijuana is shaping up to be the new gay marriage of GOP politics — most Republicans would rather not talk about it, except to punt to the states.
 
But when it comes to the 2016 presidential race, a series of legalization ballot initiatives — and a certain outspoken Kentucky senator — could make it harder for the Republican field to avoid the conversation.
 
When asked to articulate their positions on recreational marijuana, several potential GOP 2016 candidates have tried to strike a tricky balance: stress the downsides of pot use and the upsides of states’ rights. Some have indicated their openness to decriminalizing pot, at least in their state, but none favors outright legalization.
 
For instance, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who took steps toward decriminalizing pot in his state, declared last year: “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.”
 
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, meanwhile, “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,” said Alex Conant, his spokesman. “Of course, states can make decisions about what laws they wish to apply within their own borders.”
 
Marijuana may not stimulate the same kind of passion as the debate over same-sex marriage. Still, a majority of Americans support legalizing pot, and young people — who tend to turn out more for presidential elections than midterms — are especially keen on it.
 
The “leave it to the states” stance allows potential GOP candidates to stake out a relatively safe middle ground between an older conservative base that disapproves of marijuana use and a general-election electorate and libertarian wing that prefers legalization. The states’ rights approach also allows GOP candidates to express some openness to medical marijuana and criminal justice reform and argue against devoting costly resources for federal enforcement.
It’s also a position many in the prospective GOP field have taken on same-sex marriage.
 
Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush both argued for the rights of states to set their own marriage policies after courts overturned bans in Texas and Florida. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Rubio, among others, have also said marriage should be left up to the states. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has called for a constitutional amendment to disallow the federal government or courts to nullify state marriage laws, saying: “our Constitution leaves it to the states to define marriage.”
 
At least five states are preparing to vote on legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016 — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada. There are efforts to put the issue on ballots in Florida, Missouri and Montana. Colorado, Washington state, Oregon and Alaska already have voted to legalize recreational marijuana, as has Washington, D.C.
 
President Barack Obama’s administration has basically tried to avoid what’s becoming a murky legal issue. The Justice Department announced in 2013 that it wouldn’t block recreational and medical marijuana in states that adopted legalization measures; while a federal cannabis ban remains, the administration has largely opted not to enforce it in states that have voted to legalize.
 
Many states have laws either legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes or decriminalizing it — eliminating criminal charges while still having penalties, such as a fine. States have flirted with those two avenues to test the waters on marijuana without immediately embracing full-scale legalization.
 
Among those states is Florida, which narrowly defeated a constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana in 2014. Bush publicly opposed it but added that states “ought to have a right to decide.”
 
JONATHAN TOPAZ ~ POLITICO ~ January 31, 2015
 
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