He’s carving out marijuana policy as an area of leadership, and that has some activists very, very excited.
By Lucia Graves
If he runs for president, Sen. Rand Paul will not be your typical Republican candidate. On Thursday the Kentucky senator filed yet another amendment protecting the states that have implemented medical-marijuana laws—as well as the patients and doctors acting in accordance with them—from federal prosecution.
The amendment, attached to the "Bring Jobs Home Act," would allow states to "enact and implement laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana for medical use" without threat of federal interference. The measure would also protect patients in places where medical marijuana is legal (23 states and the District of Columbia) from prosecution for violating federal marijuana laws.
Paul, who is widely believed to be eyeing the presidency, introduced a separate measure in June to stop the Drug Enforcement Administration from using federal funds to go after medical-marijuana operations that are legal under state law. A similar version of the amendment introduced by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Sam Farr easily passed the lower chamber in May, underscoring marijuana’s growing national acceptance.
Paul’s press person has said that the new amendment, if enacted, would go beyond the Farr-Rohrabacher legislation by providing a more formal framework for protecting states that have enacted medical-marijuana laws.
While passage of the amendment is unlikely—it’s not even expected to come up for a vote—the news of its introduction was excitedly written up by a host of advocacy sites, including Hemp News, Stop the Drug War and Ladybud, where advocates encouraged readers to contact their senator in support of Amendment 3630. "When calling or writing, remember that you catch more flies with sugar than honey," advises one post, presumably meaning you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. "Reframing the medical cannabis issue as a human-rights issue, not a partisan one, will also help."
Paul also has been outspoken in his support for industrial hemp, working with his fellow senator from Kentucky, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to pass a measure earlier this year allowing states to grow industrial hemp for research. The legislation is a boon to farmers in Eastern Kentucky, and while it may seem like little more than a pet project for Kentuckians, marijuana activists have been quietly cheering ever since they first got wind of Paul’s plan.
Republicans’ views on medical marijuana have been shifting over the past few years and the Farr-Rohrabacher vote in the House is only the most recent proof. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center found most Americans think pot should be legal, in contrast to a decade ago when voters opposed it by a 2-to-1 ratio, and that there’s broad agreement that government enforcement of marijuana laws is not worth the cost. One poll from 2013 found that 78 percent of independents and 67 percent of Republicans think government enforcement efforts cost more than they’re worth. Younger Americans are even more likely to think so.
A recent story in the Los Angeles Times details why Republicans are slowly embracing marijuana, arguing that the rise of the tea party has given an unforeseen boost to legalization. The story notes tea partiers see the federal government’s position on marijuana as an example of government overreach, and quotes Dan Riffle, then a lobbyist with the Marijunana Policy Project, saying Igor Birman, a tea-party candidate looking to knock out Democrat Ami Berra in a congressional swing district in California, is among a growing number of pro-reform Republicans.
"To many political observers, it looks like Rand Paul is already eyeing a run for the GOP nomination for president in 2016," marijuana activist Joe Klare wrote in The 420 Times at the time. "Someone in the White House that supports industrial hemp—and drug-policy reform in general—would be a huge boost to the prospects of actual reform on a federal level."
Marijuana has been called "the sleeper issue of 2016" and something that’s only going to get bigger. As a libertarian senator, Paul has long been in favor of decriminalization and is quite clearly the most pro-reform Republican 2016 contender on the issue of marijuana. (While other likely contenders, such as Florida’s Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, haven’t weighed in on medical marijuana, others, like New Jersey’s Chris Christie have come out against it.) Paul has been considered a leader on the issue in Congress, and even sided with President Obama in noting that minorities are unfairly burdened by drug laws. And as Slate‘s Dave Weigel noted earlier this year, conservatives have stayed with him on the issue, especially as Paul assured them his interest was not in legalizing hard drugs but in reducing minimum sentences. (In 2013 he alienated some activists by claiming the drug was "not healthy").
For now, Paul is not backing away from those marijuana-reform bona fides, and the fact that he’s been so outspoken on the issue this summer should encourage activists. Indeed on other issues, such as his position on relations with Israel, he’s been massaging his approach ahead of an expected run.
"It’s pretty clear that Rand Paul is working hard to appeal to diverse constituencies as he weighs throwing his hat into the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination," Tom Angell, a spokesman for the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority, said in an email. "With polls showing supermajority support for medical marijuana across virtually every demographic group, it makes sense Sen. Paul would want to be at the forefront of efforts to modernize these outdated federal laws. And with five U.S. House floor votes in a row coming out favorably for cannabis-policy reformers over the past few months, we expect to see more senators realizing that getting onto the winning side of this issue is a smart move."
It certainly might expand the pool of people who’d consider voting for a Republican.