Rand Paul’s Quiet Weed Overture

He’s carving out marijuana policy as an area of leadership, and that has some activists very, very excited.

Rand Paul speaks at the CPAC on February 10, 2011 in Washington, DC.
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Lucia Graves
July 25, 2014, 8:53 a.m.

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.

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