The next president could rip up the federal memo that lets Oregon, Washington and other states allow sales of recreational marijuana while the drug remains forbidden under federal law.

Most experts who follow marijuana policy say they doubt a newly elected president would try to shut down pot sales when polls show that a majority of Americans support legalization.

But some of the leading Republican presidential candidates – including retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – criticize the Obama administration for allowing states to have recreational marijuana sales and suggest they’ll put legal ganja back in the bottle.

As a result, this could be the most consequential presidential election on pot since 1980. That’s when Ronald Reagan won the White House and discouraged states from decriminalizing possession while launching a stern “Just Say No to Drugs” approach.

“It’s been remarkable to see how much discussion there has been this year,” said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization group. “It used to be we really had to track the candidates down and beg them to answer our questions.”

This year, the presidential candidates are being pressed to deal with marijuana in a way they never had before. It’s gone way beyond the stock question of whether they’ve ever inhaled.

They’ve been quizzed at the presidential debates, on the stodgy Sunday morning talk shows and by activists on both sides of the issue. One CNN reporter even dressed up as Hunter S. Thompson – the drug-obsessed “gonzo journalist” of the baby-boom generation – to interview one of the presidential candidates, Democrat Martin O’Malley, while tooling down a desert highway outside Las Vegas.

By far the biggest issue is whether the candidates would follow the Obama administration’s lead in allowing states to set up a legal recreational marijuana market. The states now operate under a 2013 memo from Deputy Attorney General James Cole saying they can proceed with regulated sales as long as they work to meet such goals as eliminating illegal diversions and preventing youth access to marijuana.

Colorado and Washington voted for legalization in 2012, with Oregon and Alaska following two years later. Ohio will vote on legalization next month, and ballot measures are being planned in at least eight states for 2016.

“Administratively, it’s very easy for the new president” to reverse current administration policy and start over, noted John Hudak, a Brookings Institution fellow who studies marijuana policy.

However, he added, “to shut down that much of an operation in so many states is a fight I don’t think most rational presidents would want to pick.”

Such a move could throw thousands of people out of work and introduce an air of chaos around a relatively low-priority issue just as a president is trying to rack up early accomplishments, Hudak said.

Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and one of the country’s leading critics of legalization, agreed that a new president might not want to tackle marijuana right away.

But Sabet argued that the new president will soon have to decide whether to let states continue to go their own way or set firm federal controls.

“Does any president want to experience a major legalization-related tragedy on their watch?” asked Sabet in a conference call with reporters to release his group’s scorecard on the presidential candidates.

While many marijuana advocates say legalization is inevitable, Sabet said it’s still possible to reverse course. He wants to relax penalties on drug offenses while still upholding federal prohibitions. Voters may not want to throw pot smokers in jail, he argued, but they’re uncomfortable with the idea of a new industry – “Big Tobacco 2.0,” he calls it – selling things such as pot-laced gummy bears.

Candidates from both parties clearly seem to be picking up on voter ambivalence. Only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat, has indicated support for legalization. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., stops just short of promoting legalization and has courted support from the marijuana industry, which threw him a fundraiser this year.

For the most part, caution abounds. All of the candidates stress their support for some form of medical marijuana – which is now legal in 23 states – while falling into one of two camps on recreational cannabis.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is firmly in the group that supports states’ rights, but she’s been nuanced enough on the various issues surrounding the drug that both of the dueling marijuana groups give her B grades. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former CEO Carly Fiorina also say states should be able to legalize the drug, but they’re also more apt to describe marijuana as dangerous.

Opting for states’ rights may be the safest political position. One 2013 survey found that 60 percent of Americans – and 57 percent of Republicans — believe states should be free to legalize marijuana despite federal law.

On the other hand, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has tried to draw attention to his willingness to crack down on pot in Colorado and other states. Users should “enjoy it until January of 2017,” he said, “because I will enforce the federal laws against marijuana as president of the United States.”

His tough talk hasn’t helped revive his near-moribund campaign. But two other Republicans with similar views, Carson and Rubio, are polling much stronger.

Carson, who led the GOP race in one poll released this week, repeatedly talks about the potential danger of marijuana on developing brains – and he’s had longstanding concerns about intoxicants. In a 2012 book, he wrote approvingly of Sweden’s move to lower the drunk-driving standard to 0.02 percent – four times tougher than the U.S. standard of 0.08 percent.

Donald Trump, who has led most GOP polls for months, is harder to pin down. Years ago, he supported legalizing all drugs. Now he denounces Colorado’s first-in-the-nation recreational marijuana sales as “bad” and declared they “have a lot of problems going on.” At the same time, he also suggests it’s up to state voters.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a leading congressional proponent of legalizing marijuana, said he thinks the Republican candidates threatening to shut down pot sales are “playing to their base.”

“If they go on a jihad on that” in the general election, Blumenauer said, “it loses them more votes than it gains.”

Both Blumenauer and Tvert, of the Marijuana Policy Project, said an attempt to ban recreational marijuana sales would galvanize support in Congress for removing federal pot penalties. They point out that even if the federal government moved to shut down sales, possession of marijuana would still be legal in those states.

“All you’re doing is moving against regulated sales,” said Tvert, which in his view would drive more consumers to the black market.

There are plenty of other marijuana-related issues for a new president to consider. Pot industry lobbyists are pushing hard to get access to banking services and an end to tax laws that severely limit the expenses that pot businesses can deduct. Advocates also want to ease federal controls to allow more marijuana research.

Sabet said the new president should at least lay out specific standards for states to try to show that legalization hasn’t led to such things as more drugged driving and higher youth consumption.

Portland lawyer Amy Margolis, who led a marijuana industry group on a lobbying mission to Congress last week, said she’s not sure what to make of pot and the presidential race.

“I just hope we don’t have a rollback on this issue,” she said. If an unfriendly candidate takes office, she added, “I would just like them to leave us alone.”

–Jeff Mapes



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