The 2016 presidential campaign field is already 10 contenders deep, and though it may double in the coming months, marijuana activists and pro-legalization lobbyists already see a clear winner: Rand Paul.
“I think a lot of these guys talk the talk but the only person who has so far walked the walk is Rand Paul,” said Marijuana Policy Project Director Dan Riffle.
Paul, a first term Republican senator from Kentucky, has been a champion of marijuana law reform practically from the beginning of his career. During his time in office, he’s captured the hearts of a diverse group of voters: isolationists, young voters disenchanted with the Republican Party, and now, the pro-cannabis community.
“We’ve got Rand Paul, who is very clear in saying he thinks the war on drugs is a failure, that states should be able to implement marijuana laws,” said Tom Angell, founder of Marijuana Majority. “Where most of the candidates are with us in terms of saying the right things, Rand Paul is actually taking meaningful action to make it happen.”
This March Paul, along with Democratic senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Corey Booker of New Jersey, introduced legislation that aimed to legitimize medical marijuana at the federal level.
The measure would grant states where the use of the drug is legal protections against federal government intervention. Known as the CARERS Act, the bill would also downgrade marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule II drug.
While the bill has a long way before becoming law, the fact that Paul made a concrete effort to do away with marijuana ‘prohibition’-- as many legalizers choose to call it—has been enough to persuade many legalization groups that he is the best champion for their cause.
“Obviously Rand Paul has been in a category of his own,” Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). “He’s the only one who has introduced a piece of legislation that addresses some of the issues the industry faces.”
In addition to letting states determine their own laws on marijuana, he’s also been very vocal in his call to reform the county’s drug sentencing laws and the need for relaxed punishments on pot possession.
On Fox news last spring Rand told host Chris Wallace:
“Look, the last two presidents could conceivably have been put in jail for their drug use, and I really think, you know, look what would have happened, it would have ruined their lives. They got lucky, but a lot of poor kids, particularly in the inner city, don’t get lucky. They don’t have good attorneys, and they go to jail for these things and I think it’s a big mistake.”
It’s passionate rhetoric like that that has at least one major legalization group throwing major money behind him.
The Marijuana Policy Project, the largest organization working on cannabis policy reform, has endorsed Paul in the GOP primary and project director Dan Riffle says they have already maxed out donations to his campaign.
Many of the other top pro-legalization groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws say they are internally barred from throwing their weight behind a candidate and endorsing them.
But speak to enough of the groups and their preference is pretty clear. When Rand Paul’s name comes up, sentiments about him stand out above the fray.
“Senator Rand Paul has articulated the most reform-oriented position to date by deferring to state’s rights in terms of cannabis, abortion, guns, etc.,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. “To get the attention and support of cannabis legalization reform groups and cannabis industry members, a presidential candidate will need to swear off cannabis prohibition as a viable public policy option after nearly 80 years of failure and expense.”
While the majority of candidates running on both sides of the aisle have supported states’ rights to determine their own marijuana policies, most have stopped short of outright calling for marijuana policy reform.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, is taking a clear ‘wait and see’ approach. While she supports states' ability to work as “laboratories of democracy,” so far she has hesitated to support national legalization.
“At this point the things that she has said has indicated that she is moving in the right direction. There is no question that in the past she has not necessarily been an outspoken supporter…but then again you’ve seen a lot of people in the field adjusting their language,” said Taylor West of NCIA.
A few candidates, like Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Republican Florida Senator Marco Rubio, have not embraced marijuana policy reform. Christie has indicated that he would not take a hands-off approach on states that legalize marijuana—a directive currently being employed by the Obama administration.
But it’s still early on the campaign trail and some legalization advocates think that candidate’s tunes may change as they get closer to the primaries.
“Some of the states where the activity is moving on the marijuana front are states that these candidates are going to have to spend a lot of time in.” West said. “It’s going to be really interesting to see as we move into state by state campaigning how these candidates handle questions about [legalization].”