Californians are likely to vote this fall on legalizing marijuana for recreation but whether Golden State residents can break out the bongs could depend on what happens at the top of the ballot.
The next president has the power to shut down marijuana sales in the states that have legalized it, and two of the candidates, Republicans Marco Rubio and Ben Carson, have suggested they would.
While marijuana remains forbidden under federal law, President Barack Obama has allowed pot sales in states such as Colorado, Oregon and Washington that have legalized recreational marijuana under state law.
Weed advocates are watching the presidential race closely and hoping the next president follows Obama’s path on pot.
“The next administration has the ability to continue the position of the Obama administration in allowing this experiment to continue successfully,” said Chris Woods, owner of Terrapin Care Station, a growing chain of recreational marijuana stores in Colorado, with locations in Boulder and the Denver suburb of Aurora.
Jason Kinney, spokesman for the ballot campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in California, expressed faith that even the election of an anti-marijuana president like Rubio wouldn’t be a roadblock.
“Given the increasing bipartisan support within Congress for allowing states to make their own decisions about the issue, we are confident that the state of California will be allowed to implement the will of its people and create a tightly regulated, controlled and transparent system for the cultivation and sale of adult-use marijuana within its borders,” he said.
Congress, though, has largely been silent on the marijuana issue. While it blocked Washington, D.C. from creating a legal pot market, it has left enforcement issues up to the executive branch.
States are following a 2013 Obama administration Justice Department memo that lets them allow regulated marijuana sales as long as they take steps like working to keep kids from getting weed and preventing the distribution of marijuana to other states where it remains illegal.
I think there is a lot riding on California in terms of the response of the next president.
John Hudak, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
But that could change quickly. It would be administratively simple for the next president to order new Justice Department memos that reverse Obama’s acceptance of legal weed, said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about marijuana.
Still, enforcing such a mandate and shutting down marijuana sales in the states would be an enormous federal law enforcement task, he said, especially if the new president also tried to stop medical marijuana, which is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia.
None of the presidential candidates have explicitly threatened medical marijuana. But even shutting down recreational sales would be a big undertaking, Hudak said – particularly if the California initiative passes, and the state’s new system gets up and running before the new president acts.
Legalizing recreational marijuana sales in California, which has nearly 40 million people, would be a huge expansion. The biggest state so far to legalize is Washington, with about 7 million people.
“Shutting down the legal recreational systems is going to be quite difficult for any president. If California legalizes it becomes impossible,” Hudak said. “I think there is a lot riding on California in terms of the response of the next president.”
Marijuana advocates are also betting on politicians, even those who are drug warriors, hesitating to act against pot sales because polls show a majority of Americans support legalization.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who opposed his state’s legalization of pot, said he’s still waiting to know if pot’s availability has increased traffic accidents and homelessness. The state had more fatality accidents in 2015 than in 2014, but so did the United States as a whole. Gardner noted that polls show support for legalization went up after voters made recreational sales legal there in 2012.
Jeffrey Zinsmeister, executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization but wants to ease penalties for drug offenses, argues that the problems in states that have legalized are going to become apparent to the presidential candidates.
He said he’s hopeful the next president is going to enforce federal law and shut down recreational marijuana sales, although he deemed it too soon to predict the chances of that happening.
“What the candidates say on the campaign trail and what they do in office are often two very different things,” Zinsmeister said. “It seems to be an issue that, largely speaking, the candidates have tried to avoid.”
Marijuana is a big and fast growing business in the states that have legalized. Adult recreational use sales grew from $351 million in 2014 to $998 million last year, according to a new report from ArcView Market Research, a firm that specializes in promoting marijuana.
Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group for the industry, said most presidential candidates either support legal marijuana or want to leave it to the states.
“I think we’re looking at a scenario where, if California passes an adult use initiative and commits to developing a regulated program, the likelihood is that they will be able to move forward,” West said.
Democrat Bernie Sanders is the biggest advocate of legalization among the presidential candidates. He’s won support from marijuana activists for introducing a bill for federal decriminalization.
His Democratic primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, has been more cautious on the marijuana issue. Clinton declined to take a position at an October debate but subsequently told a Denver television station that the federal government should not interfere with Colorado voters’ decision to legalize.
Republicans Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush also have suggested marijuana should be left up to the states.
Republicans Rubio and Carson have taken a harder line, though, with both suggesting a federal crackdown.
Rubio, who is among the top tier of Republican candidates and finished a close third in the Iowa caucuses, has said in interviews that he’d “absolutely” enforce federal marijuana law in the states.