No one really knows where Hillary Clinton stands currently on marijuana, and that in itself is a problem. Even though she has not announced her candidacy, her huge lead in the Democratic primary for 2016 has scared off most challengers and so far allows her to avoid the gauntlet of questions the Republican hopefuls are subjected to.
A competitive primary is the best chance for the party’s base to push party leaders to take new positions, and there are few issues where the disconnect between the Democratic base and Democratic leadership is so extreme as marijuana reform. According to Pew, 63 percent of regular Democrats back marijuana legalization, but it currently lacks the support of a single Democratic senator or governor, except possibly Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin.
This upcoming presidential primary should be a big moment for marijuana with Democratic leaders finally being forced to really reflect the will of their base. Sadly, this national debate within the Democratic party didn’t take place in 2012 because Obama was an incumbent without a real primary challenger. It might again be denied this cycle because Clinton holds such a dominant position.
While a close race on the Republican side has all the major candidates jockeying for position with their base, facing numerous interviews and taking stances on a whole range of topics, Clinton has managed to stay out of it. She has the luxury of ignoring questions from the media and the base. Because they are actively engaging with their base, we know where many of the Republican hopefuls stand on the issue of marijuana, but not Clinton.
What is happening in Maryland should be taking place nationally
We can look at Maryland to see what could be if there were a competitive Democratic presidential primary. In their primary contest for governor, third place candidate Heather Mizeur came out in support of legalization. The move seemed to help raise her standing and had a significant policy and political impact in the state.
First, it has forced people to look at legalization as a serious policy option. It was one of the few questions asked during the first debate.
More significantly, it has helped shift the entire Democratic establishment in Maryland to the left on the issue. After Mizeur came out with her legalization plan, both her Democratic opponents and the current governor endorsed decriminalization. While her two opponents don’t support legalization, they now talk about it as a legitimate policy option that may happen. Mizeur was instrumental in getting the new decriminalization law adopted this year.
It is possible that Clinton may evolve on the issue by herself. That would be great, but such an evolution would be far more likely if there were the political incentive of a primary fight pushing it along. For now it seems she can afford to ignore talking about issues where she diverges significantly with regular Democrats, like marijuana reform.
Photo from World Bank Photo Collection under Creative Commons license