Rand Paul, Marijuana Legalization, and Winning The Youth Vote

Last week, the Boston Globe reported that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush smoked marijuana as a teenager at prep school. The report resulted in Sen. Rand Paul, a potential presidential rival to Bush, replying, “This is a guy who now admits he smoked marijuana but he wants to put people in jail who do.” The exchange may indicate more than a moment of intra-party politics, but a potential opening to alter the coalitions of both parties.

Following the 2012 elections, stories circulated about what Republicans could do to compensate for various electoral gaps: youth, gender, race. Attempts at reversing these trends have led down perilous paths, as was the case for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio after a disastrous attempt at reforming immigration.

President Barack Obama altered the 2012 race when he formally announced his support for gay marriage after several years of opposing it. Some Republicans have voiced support for gay marriage, such as U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) and former Governor Jon Huntsman (Utah). However, this has made little impact in a party with a large evangelical Christian base, for whom support for gay marriage and abortion rights is anathema.

With Democrats currently holding advantages over Republicans with youth voters and other demographics, the GOP may have few options to gain electoral parity without alienating significant portions of its own base.

With polls showing 18- to 29-year-olds supporting some form of legalization, reform of marijuana laws may provide an opening for Republicans where other issues have proved elusive.

Like some other Republicans, Paul has alluded to marijuana usage in his past. In 2014, in response to whether he used marijuana in college, the senator replied, “I can say that I made mistakes when I was a kid.”

Prior to his election, President Obama voiced support for marijuana decriminalization, and many pro-legalization activists hoped this signaled an end to the war on drugs. Since then, however, the Obama administration has sent mixed signals by increasing spending on the war on drugs while seeking the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences.

Although still holding a sizable advantage with young voters, Obama lost 6 percent of the youth vote in 2012 compared to 2008. The youth vote fell even lower in 2014.

The effort to reform drug laws does have support within the GOP. In Jeb Bush’s home state of Florida, a Republican state senator recently introduced a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for a broader list of afflictions. However, since his time as governor, Bush has opposed all efforts to relax drug laws.

Other potential Republican presidential candidates have articulated personal stances against legalization. Governors Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Chris Christie (New Jersey) have both voiced opposition to marijuana legalization. Another potential candidate, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, has called the Obama administration’s refusal to uphold federal drug laws as “fundamentally dangerous to the liberty of the people.”

Rand Paul has not come out for full-fledged marijuana legalization, but he has worked with Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker to reform drug sentencing. However, in castigating fellow Republicans for holding a hypocritical attitude on the matter, he is in a better position than his rivals to maneuver from simply reforming the drug war to ending a prohibition that could shake up 2016.

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