Aside from the breaking news on how long it takes candidates to visit the rest room – fuller than full disclosure – one part of last week’s Democratic presidential debate deserved some more attention, especially here in the free-smoking Northwest.
One leading candidate for president announced he would likely support legalization of recreational marijuana, and the other one made it clear she was headed that way.
(Two other candidates appeared to have been sampling before going on stage, but that’s a different story.)
Ten years ago, those statements might have been as likely as a candidate using his opening statement to offer Wolf Blitzer a bong.
This is an issue of particular interest in our neighborhood – Oregon, Washington and for that matter Alaska – because while local voters have legalized marijuana use in the Northwest, it’s still federally illegal. The reason a lot of folks around here, and in Colorado, don’t have starring roles in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s filing system is that Barack Obama’s Justice Department won’t make a point of it.
Some other president’s Justice Department might make a different decision, which might be enough reason to inspire local watching parties for both parties’ presidential debates.
In last week’s debate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked how he would vote on a Nevada legalization initiative, part of a cloud of smoke working its way east.
“I suspect I would vote yes. And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses,” he said immediately. Then, pivoting back to his central theme, Sanders added, “We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana.”
Hillary Clinton said she wasn’t ready to take a position on legalization, but continued, “We have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana. Therefore, we need more states, cities, and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don’t have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.”
She sounded uncannily like politicians winkingly declaring they were “evolving” on gay marriage, but just not quite there yet.
The comments were very different from answers in any previous presidential debate, and also different from some of the answers in a Republican debate – reason for supporters of Oregon’s new marijuana law (and its new marijuana economy) to watch next year’s contest with close if slightly reddened eyes.
While libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul appears to support legalization, and GOP candidates like Donald Trump and Jeb Bush would avoid interfering with states – Bush both admitted smoking marijuana in prep school and opposed a recent Florida medical marijuana initiative – some GOP candidates might complicate Oregon’s life considerably.
Rising hopeful Ben Carson has said that while he would let drug companies explore medical marijuana, he would otherwise enforce federal law. He recently explained, “When we do things like have our attorney general and our president say ‘Yeah, marijuana’s not that bad. You know, I used and look how I turned out!’ Well, that’s the problem.”
When Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, increasingly considered by deep thinkers a likely choice after Trump and Carson somehow disappear, was asked about enforcing federal law against states legalizing marijuana, he responded, “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.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, still hanging in there, was asked on “Face the Nation” in June, “If you were president, would you return the federal prosecutions in these states like Colorado, Washington State? “and firmly replied “Yes.” States, Christie has said, should not be violating federal law and collecting revenue from marijuana.
This may not be next year’s crucial issue. But for a few states – and maybe a few more by next November – the question of who controls the U.S. Justice Department might be more than a smokescreen.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 10/21/15.