Even though presidential elections only happen every four years, it seems like the campaigns begin earlier each time. Presidential candidates are metaphorically putting out the Christmas lights in August in the hope of gaining an advantage over their opponents.
Is the road to the White House paved in green?
Thus far, we have in the neighborhood of two dozen candidates vying for the presidency. While there are dozens of issues at hand that may help define this election -- immigration, the economy, foreign relations, and climate change, for example -- an unlikely issue, marijuana, has forced its way into the debate thanks to a resounding surge in popularity among Americans young and old across the country.
A decade ago, according to Gallup, a mere one-third of Americans shared a favorable view of marijuana. However, in recent years slightly more than 50% of Americans have expressed a favorable view of the federally illegal drug. And it's not just Gallup -- Pew Research Center and General Social Survey both demonstrated in recent polls that more Americans than ever are in favor of seeing marijuana legalized or decriminalized.
In certain instances this view is music to states' ears. Marijuana taxation provides a fresh source of revenue for select states that legalize the drug for medicinal or recreational purposes. States can then use this revenue to fund education or infrastructure without having to impose statewide tax increases.
But the hands-off approach the federal government has taken in letting states regulate their own marijuana industries is also great news for patients with chronic or life-threatening diseases and disorders that are eligible for marijuana prescriptions. As it stands now, nearly two-dozen states have legalized the use of marijuana for certain medical diseases and disorders, and a number of clinical studies have shown that marijuana, or cannabinoids found within the cannabis plant, could have positive medical benefits.
The GOP weighs in on marijuana
Not surprisingly, with so much smoke in marijuana's sails, it became one of the key talking points of the GOP presidential debate held on Wednesday, Sept. 16 at the Ronald Reagan Library in California. Considering the wide variety of opinions held by the 11 top-polling Republican candidates, you just knew it was bound to garner a lot of attention during the debate.
As expected, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, arguably the hardest-line anti-marijuana candidate running for president from either major political party, took a very line-in-the-sand approach with the drug. Christie echoed his previously issued comments to reinstitute federal law on states should he take the oval office, thus making recreational marijuana illegal around the country. He also referred to marijuana as a "gateway drug" that leads to the use of potentially more dangerous drugs.
The remaining candidates who managed to comment on marijuana -- Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and Rand Paul -- all said that states should be left alone to regulate the industry, but their additional comments all add up to one conclusion: marijuana reform isn't happening anytime soon if a Republican presidential candidate wins the White House.
Fiorina, despite believing in state-level regulation, had this to say:
"[W]e are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It's not. And the marijuana that kids are smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago... We need to tell young people the truth. Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people."
Jeb Bush tackled the idea in a similar way:
"We have a serious epidemic of drugs that goes way beyond marijuana. People's families are being torn apart [a reference to his recent campaigning in New Hampshire]."
Even Rand Paul, arguably the closest candidate in the GOP field to a supporter of marijuana, wavered from supporting the drug. While strongly advocating state regulation of marijuana vis-à-vis the 10th amendment, Paul still referred to smoking marijuana as "a crime."
A simple conclusion
In the early going the presidential debates have practically solidified the idea that most candidates want to distance themselves as much as possible from this issue, even though a majority of Americans appear to now have a favorable opinion on the drug. If any of these GOP candidates win the White House, it looks increasingly unlikely that we could see marijuana reform on a federal level before the end of this decade.
What's holding lawmakers back from pushing through legislation that people appear to want in national polls? Primarily it has to do with marijuana's still questionable long-term safety profile on both the body and psyche of a user.
In previous decades researchers spent the majority of their time (more than nine out of 10 trials) examining the dangers of marijuana rather than its benefits. Thus today's lawmakers have a mountain of data that suggests marijuana is potentially dangerous, while the clinical studies suggesting it could be beneficial are either few and far between or not fully mature. Until Congress has substantive proof of the safety of marijuana, it's unlikely that any legislation will be passed that would soften the federal government's stance.
Of course, as has been pointed out in recent months, clinical safety is far from the only concern for the marijuana industry. An inability to get basic banking services, high taxation due to the inability to deduct business expenses, and non-uniform expansion even within legal states (only a quarter of jurisdictions in Colorado have legalized marijuana) have made it increasingly tough for the industry to succeed.
Investors had hoped that the presidential debates would open up discussion of marijuana that could lead to substantive reforms when the new president takes office, but if the latest GOP debate has taught us anything, that's an unlikely scenario. Marijuana remains a very risky investment, with no guarantee of long-term success.