Hillary Clinton Evolves on Another Issue

The potential presidential candidate fields questions on a range of topics and leaves the door open to marijuana legalization.

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 25: Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) meeting on September 25, 2013 in New York City. Timed to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly, CGI brings together heads of state, CEOs, philanthropists and others to help find solutions to the world's major problems. 
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Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
June 17, 2014, 2:28 p.m.

At a town hall hos­ted by CNN on Tues­day, Hil­lary Clin­ton’s book tour felt more like a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign than ever as she fielded ques­tions on a wide range of is­sues, in­clud­ing some that were far afield from her new mem­oir about her time as sec­ret­ary of State.

One of the hot­test is­sues in lib­er­al polit­ics these days has been re­form to laws gov­ern­ing marijuana, but Clin­ton hasn’t spoken pub­licly about the is­sue since her 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, when she flatly op­posed leg­al­iz­a­tion.

“I don’t think we should de­crim­in­al­ize it,” she said at Ply­mouth State Uni­versity in New Hamp­shire in 2007. “But we ought to do re­search [in­to] what, if any, be­ne­fits it has.”

On Tues­day, she was more amen­able to change. On med­ic­al marijuana, Clin­ton called for more re­search in­to its be­ne­fits, without doubt­ing they ex­ist, but she stopped short of en­dors­ing the wide­spread ad­op­tion of med­ic­al laws. “I think we need to be very clear about the be­ne­fits of marijuana use for medi­cin­al pur­poses. I don’t think we’ve done enough re­search yet,” she said.

On re­cre­ation­al use, she was per­haps even more open to re­form. “States are the labor­at­ory of demo­cracy,” she said, not­ing that Col­or­ado and Wash­ing­ton had leg­al­ized the drug via ref­er­enda in 2012. “I want to wait and see what the evid­ence is” from the two states, she said.

Her evol­u­tion on the is­sue mir­rors that of the Demo­crat­ic Party and the coun­try as a whole, which has be­come much more fa­vor­able to drug re­form since Clin­ton last ran for of­fice or lived in the White House, said Tom An­gell, the founder of the pro-re­form group Marijuana Ma­jor­ity.

“Her open­ness to let­ting states pro­ceed with im­ple­ment­ing out­right marijuana leg­al­iz­a­tion shows just how far the polit­ics of this is­sue have shif­ted since the 90’s, when her hus­band’s ad­min­is­tra­tion tried to pun­ish doc­tors just for dis­cuss­ing the med­ic­al use of marijuana with their pa­tients,” An­gell said in an email, re­fer­ring to a case when the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment threatened to re­voke a phys­i­cians’ abil­ity to write pre­scrip­tions over med­ic­al marijuana.

Kev­in Sa­bet, however, the co-founder of Smart Ap­proaches to Marijuana, which op­poses leg­al­iz­a­tion, down­played Clin­ton’s evol­u­tion. “I don’t think we should read too much in­to these com­ments. If any­thing, she stopped short of em­bra­cing leg­al­iz­a­tion, and I have a feel­ing that once she learns more about Col­or­ado’s neg­at­ive ex­per­i­ences, and the profit-seek­ing motives of today’s Big Marijuana in­dustry, she’ll dis­ap­point a lot of leg­al­iz­a­tion ad­voc­ates,” he said in an email.

She ad­ded that — un­like her hus­band, who in­fam­ously “didn’t in­hale” — she has nev­er tried marijuana and has no plans to. “I didn’t do it when I was young. I’m not go­ing to start now,” she said with a laugh as the mod­er­at­or, CNN’s Chris­ti­ane Aman­pour, asked if she wanted to try tak­ing a puff.

Asked about gun con­trol, Clin­ton echoed her com­ments at a be­ha­vi­or­al health con­fer­ence in May when she made a strong call for rein­ing in guns. “We can­not let a minor­ity of people — and that’s what it is, a minor­ity — hold a view­point that ter­ror­izes a ma­jor­ity of people,” she said.

On the de­teri­or­at­ing situ­ation in Ir­aq, Clin­ton was asked about a po­ten­tial deal with Ir­an to roll back ad­vances made by Is­lam­ist in­sur­gents in re­cent days. Clin­ton said it was too soon to say.

She also dodged a ques­tion on wheth­er race is a factor in the heated op­pos­i­tion to Barack Obama. She agreed the at­tacks were of­ten “vir­u­lent” but said it would be un­fair to say they were race-based.

On vot­ing rights, an­oth­er hot top­ic on the left, Clin­ton called for auto­mat­ic voter re­gis­tra­tion — she in­tro­duced a bill in the Sen­ate to make that a real­ity — and said that she “de­plore[s] the at­tempts of some to re­strict the right to vote.”  

Asked about the ob­vi­ous — a po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial run — Clin­ton ac­know­ledged that it’s as much a per­son­al de­cision for her as a polit­ic­al one. “I will make this de­cision based on how I feel about it, and what I be­lieve I can do,” she said.

The crowd of about 190 people at CNN’s town hall, in­clud­ing stu­dents and rep­res­ent­at­ives of loc­al non­profits, was friendly and sup­port­ive, dol­ing out gen­er­ous ap­plause to most of Clin­ton’s an­swers.

This story has been up­dated to in­clude com­ment from An­gell and Sa­bet.

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