Poll: Fighting Marijuana Legalization Is Bad Politics

New poll suggests candidates who are pro-states' rights as far as marijuana is concerned may connect with key primary voters

Most voters in Iowa and New Hampshire think the feds should stay out of states' marijuana legalization efforts, according to new poll numbers. Credit: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg

A new Public Policy Polling survey from early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire has found that a solid majority of Republican respondents approve of states' rights to carry out marijuana policy reform without the feds cracking down. The survey, commissioned by the Marijuana Majority, found that 64 and 67 percent of Republican respondents in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, agree that "states should be able to carry out their own marijuana laws without federal interference."

In both states, the percentage of respondents who supported that sentiment was higher for Democrats (80 percent in Iowa; 77 percent in New Hampshire) and respondents overall (70 percent in Iowa; 73 percent in New Hampshire).

Republican presidential frontrunners Donald Trump and Jeb Bush have taken positions that are in line with the polls' respondents, but the data may be less welcome news for Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, who recently came out strongly in favor of a federal shutdown of states' marijuana legalization efforts.

Democratic candidates are less polarized on the issue, with most of them taking a wait-and-see approach that straddles a line between condemning and earnestly endorsing marijuana legalization without calling for federal intervention.

"Our poll shows that across party lines, and regardless of personal support for legalization, the vast majority of voters simply want the feds to get out of the way and let states implement their own reforms without harassment," Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell tells Rolling Stone. "For Democrats – who polls show overwhelmingly support legalization – this means giving states a chance to show that legalization actually works well. For Republicans – who aren't as hot on legalization, according to polls – this means extending the cherished principle of states' rights and a smaller federal government even in areas where they personally don't support the policy proposal at hand."

Trump and Bush appear to have set aside some personal qualms with marijuana policy reform in favor of states' rights. Trump, who is leading in the polls, called for drug legalization in 1990, but has since expressed some ambivalence on marijuana policy. Trump has said to Sean Hannity that marijuana legalization in Colorado is "bad," adding that "medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it's bad, and I feel strongly about that." When pressed about states' rights, Trump said, "If they vote for it, they vote for it," but maintained that "a lot of bad information is coming," including "tremendously damaging effects to the mind, to the brain, to everything. So it's a big problem."

Jeb Bush, coming in at number two in the GOP polls, has adopted a similar approach. As governor of Florida, he opposed marijuana policy reform, including a medical marijuana amendment on the state's ballot, and maintained his support for a state's right to decide. At the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference, he summed up his position succinctly, claiming that marijuana legalization is "a bad idea, but states ought to have that right to do it."

Not quite catching up with this rhetoric are Chris Christie and Marco Rubio. "If you're getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it," Christie, who is ranked 11th in the polls, said at a July town hall meeting in New Hampshire. "As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws." The PPP data suggest his comments may not have been popular with the crowd there.

Christie made a similar statement to radio host Hugh Hewitt, declaring that when it comes to marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado, "I will crack down and not permit it." He also once said he considers tax revenue pulled from the industry "blood money."

Florida Gov. Marco Rubio has explicitly stated his intent to enforce federal marijuana prohibition if elected. In April, he told Hewitt, "I think we need to enforce our federal laws," later adding, "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."

On the Democratic side, frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders share a mild reform-minded position on states' marijuana legalization, but one that maintains legalization is an experiment yet to be completed. At a CNN town hall last year, Clinton displayed her evolution on marijuana policy, which, when she was campaigning in 2007, included opposition to marijuana decriminalization. Last year, she expressed some ambivalence about medical marijuana, but seemed to support allowing marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado to continue without the federal government interfering. "On recreational, you know, states are the laboratories of democracy," Clinton said at the town hall, "We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now. I want to wait and see what the evidence is."

In a recent interview with Fusion, Sanders said he is "deeply concerned about the impact of the so-called war on drugs" and that marijuana legalization is "something we are looking at right now." Similarly, in a Reddit AMA this May, Sanders said, "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."

As a congressman, Sanders' record on marijuana policy – and federal non-intervention in particular – appears to be reform-minded. He has voted to prevent the Department of Justice from funding interventions in states' medical marijuana policies, and co-sponsored a bill to reschedule marijuana so that its medical benefits are legally recognized.

Clinton's and Sanders' statements have been echoed by other Democratic candidates, most of whom maintain the same "wait it out" rhetoric.

"These results clearly show that it's just bad politics for presidential candidates to go around saying they'd send in the DEA to arrest growers, sellers and users in states where marijuana is legal," says Angell. "Whereas supporting legalization used to be seen as a dangerous third rail of politics, it's now mainstream and in many cases is much more popular with voters than most elected officials are. Blocking legalization is the big political loser these days."