Last weekend, I reviewed speeches from the annual Conservative Political Action Conference hosted by the American Conservative Union in Washington, D.C. While the 2016 presidential primaries are still more than a year in the distance, CPAC’s annual pep rally revealed two insights. First, it reinforced the notion that conservatives will always rally around right-leaning and libertarian-leaning icons; and second, it proved that even the more moderate of right-leaning presidential hopefuls still appear at CPAC to garner support. CPAC 2015 was no different, and libertarian firebrand Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, won the straw poll for the third year in a row.
But it was Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and presumed GOP presidential candidate, who caught my attention when he made an appearance and took his turn in the limelight. Sean Hannity of Fox News, in a speedy round of inquiries, asked Bush his thoughts on the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Washington and, as of Feb. 24, Alaska. Bush answered, “States ought to have the right to do it.” Interesting. After two Bush presidencies, would a Bush 45 marijuana policy line up with the legacy of his predecessors and family or mark a departure?
The Bush 41 presidency stood tall: George H.W. Bush oversaw the creation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and brought a close to the experimental federal medical marijuana program. Not cozy to any sort of relaxed policy, Bush 41 told an audience of students in a 1989 speech at the White House, “Some think there won’t be room for (drug users) in jail. We’ll make room. We’re almost doubling prison space.” The message was clear: drugs will not be accepted in American society, and the White House will lead the charge.
Conversely, Bush 43 — George W. Bush — supported state-level decision-making, stating in 1999, “I believe each state can choose that decision as they so choose.” This statement drew support in the general election in 2000, but it was largely symbolic.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer later explained the President’s allegiance to standing federal law prohibiting marijuana use. “The president,” Fleisher said, “is opposed to the legalization of marijuana, including for medicinal purposes, and he strongly supports the current federal law that’s in place.”
This forces the question: Is Gov. Bush simply sharing a thought that states ought to determine their own marijuana laws, but he will then submit to standing federal laws, as his brother did? Is his marijuana soundbite simply an election season junket for marijuana supporters?
Gov. Bush’s suggestion of devolving the debate of marijuana to state capitols across the country would not entirely be out of step with right-leaning voters. The notion of self-determination amongst states on social questions, such as marijuana, could be welcomed by Democrats and Republicans.
Right-leaning states could elect to legalize marijuana depending on debates between free-market libertarians and social conservatives. Left-leaning states could explore legalization with support from social progressives. Devolving the marijuana debate to state capitols could result in a patchwork of pro- and anti-marijuana states — just as much as it could result in a majority of states choosing to legalize — for entirely different political principles.
Inconsistent marijuana policies across large swaths of the country could prove burdensome in regulation of commerce and behavior patterns. Regulatory problems have already become evident in the wake of Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana, as adjacent states attribute marijuana-related problems to their marijuana-friendly neighbors.
Bush must clarify his position, should he decide to run for president and explore devolving legalization questions to state capitols. Currently, states must resolve issues of minimizing conflicts between neighboring state capitols and interstate commerce.
Gov. Bush has created an interesting political scenario. In demonstrating a further evolution of social preferences along the Bush lineage, the question of marijuana legalization will undoubtedly remain alive during the 2016 presidential election. In the Republican primary, this issue could become a source for candidate soundbites and an endless delivery of social conservative platitudes amongst the “true conservatives.” Bush’s stance could open an intriguing contrast between presumed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, former first lady, senator and secretary of state.
In 2014, Clinton reaffirmed her stance on marijuana as friendly toward the use of medical marijuana, but she took a “wait and see” approach on the legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington states. This has the potential to signal brighter days ahead for marijuana enthusiasts. President Obama has not attacked Colorado and Washington — or Alaska for that matter — so is the scenario of a candidate Clinton supporting states self-determining far-fetched? Maybe not.
Until clearer signals come from the Clinton campaign-in-waiting, so far the first shot in the marijuana legalization debate has come from Bush. As recently as last November, a Gallup poll indicated that more than half of Americans favored marijuana legalization. While both George W. Bush and Jeb Bush have made similar statements that marijuana is best reserved for state-level policymakers, George failed to see through such a devolution in his administration. Jeb, will you be the doobie Bush brother America calls for?
Ian Kenyon GS is a Public Affairs candidate with the Taubman Center for Public Policy, and will always continue his conversations at firstname.lastname@example.org.