Republican attitudes are shifting on marijuana – despite Chris Christie's vow
Young woman smoking marijuana with a pipe (Darrin Harris Frisby/Drug Policy Alliance)

On Sunday, New Jersey governor Chris Christie set out his stall firmly against legalised cannabis on CBS’s Face The Nation, vowing to clamp down using federal law on states such as Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska that have legalised the drug.

Cannabis is still – technically – prohibited by federal law; however, the Obama administration has allowed legalisation to go ahead on a state-by-state basis so far without federal interference. Hillary Clinton, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has indicated that she will maintain this uneasy status quo.

Florida senator Marco Rubio – a Republican candidate for president – in April also spoke out against legalised marijuana, saying that he thought the federal laws should be enforced. He explained to radio host Hugh Hewitt: “I don’t believe we should be in the business of legalising additional intoxicants in this country, for the primary reason that when you legalise something, you’re sending a message to young people [that] it can’t be that bad, because if it was that bad, it wouldn’t be legal.”

You might be forgiven for believing that Christie and Rubio are representative of the Republican party attitude. Traditionally, the Republicans have been tough on drugs as part of being tough on crime. But that attitude is changing fast.

“On the other end of the spectrum from Christie is Rand Paul,” said Alyson Martin, the founder of Cannabis Wire, a news service which focusses on pot, referring to the Kentucky senator who is also running for the Republican presidential nomination. “Rand Paul would probably push forward hemp legislation, based on his efforts as a senator to expand hemp cultivation, and he could make some big moves at the federal level to expand access to medical cannabis, based upon his support of the Carers Act [an act that would allow states to set their own policies in regard to medical marijuana],” she said.

“The remaining candidates fall into the states’ rights realm, and that scenario would likely resemble the current landscape.”

Some Republican presidential candidates are still clearly working through the subject. Lindsey Graham, for example, has made statements on both sides; saying “if marijuana is half as bad as alcohol, that’s probably good enough reason to keep it illegal”, but also speaking out in favour of the legalisation of cannabis oil CBD.

Conversely, former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker expressed concern in February 2014 that marijuana was a gateway drug to “heroin and meth”, but by March 2014 he looked as if he might be warming to the idea; after speaking to Colorado governor John Hickenlooper about the tax revenues legalisation brought, Walker said that legalisation “may be something that resonates in the future”, though he added that he did not see any movement for it right now.

But many in the GOP, including most of the frontrunners of the presumptive presidential pack, have spoken out strongly in favour of the states’ rights to make their own decisions on this issue.

Presidential candidate Rick Perry, as governor of Texas, moved his state toward decriminalization of cannabis, and told reporters that “states should be able to set their own policies on abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization” so that “people will decide where they want to live”.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPac) in February, former Florida governor Jeb Bush – who is expected to announce his presidential campaign on Monday – said that he thought marijuana legalisation was “a bad idea” – but also said he supported the right of states to pursue it themselves.

At the same conference, Texas senator Ted Cruz, another presidential candidate, called legalisation “a great embodiment of what supreme court justice Louis Brandeis called ‘the laboratories of democracy’,” adding that for citizens of Colorado to decide they want to go down that road, “that’s their prerogative”.

Dan Riffle, the federal policy director at the Marijuana Policy Project, himself a former prosecutor, told the Guardian that he found Christie’s hardline stance “troubling”.

“Federal law enforcement resources are limited, and there are more important things to focus them on – like terrorism and violent crime – than busting businesses for nonviolent activity that’s legal under state law. Colorado is showing that, when property regulated, marijuana isn’t a threat to public safety,” Riffle said.

He pointed out, however, that most of the GOP field – especially Paul, but also Perry, Cruz, Bush and even Rubio, have said at one time or another that this issue came down to that of states’ rights.

“True conservatives support federalism and the 10th amendment, and oppose a one-size-fits-all federal solution to issues that should be left to the states,” he said. © Guardian News and Media 2015