While President Barack Obama has never hid his penchant for pot during his younger days in Hawaii, Americans soon will elect a president who claims never to have touched marijuana.
Republican Donald Trump boasts that he has never smoked a joint or a cigarette or even had a drop of alcohol.
Democrat Hillary Clinton was adamant on CNN when asked whether she had ever taken a toke, replying that she never had and never would: “Absolutely not.”
Despite their personal views, both of the major presidential candidates have pledged to allow the states to regulate marijuana, following the lead that Obama set in 2013.
That would be welcome news for Washington state, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska, where voters have approved recreational marijuana, along with the 26 states that allow the drug to be used for medical reasons. But legalization backers still have one nagging question: Can you believe either Clinton or Trump?
Both have a history of flip-flopping on major issues, and a strong majority of Americans don’t trust either candidate: A CNN poll taken during the Republican convention found that only 30 percent think that Clinton is honest and trustworthy, compared with 43 percent for Trump.
Clinton and Trump have a history of flip-flopping and most Americans don’t trust either candidate
Trump, who once called himself a supporter of abortion rights, now wants to ban abortions. After first opposing an increase in the minimum wage, he wants it raised.
In 1990, the New York businessman called for legalizing all drugs, a position he no longer holds. And his statements on marijuana have given ammunition to both sides of the legalization debate.
Last week, Trump told a Denver television reporter that he would not use federal laws to block Colorado’s pot sales: “I’m a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.”
But last year, he told a conservative gathering that Colorado had experienced “big problems” by legalizing pot: “I think it’s bad and I feel strongly about that.”
Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of Drug Policy Action, a pro-legalization group, said Trump had been “all over the map,” making it hard to know what he’d do.
“He’s entirely unpredictable on this issue, as on so many others,” Nadelmann said.
He’s entirely unpredictable on this issue, as on so many others.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Action, on Trump
Clinton once opposed same-sex marriage but now backs it. As secretary of state, she promoted Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, only to trash it now.
Like Trump, Clinton backs medical marijuana, though she says it needs more study. And Clinton has repeatedly said that states such as Washington and Colorado should serve as “laboratories of democracy” in experimenting with recreational marijuana.
In a 2014 interview on CNN, Clinton distanced herself from her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who famously said in 1992 that he had smoked marijuana once but never inhaled.
“No, I didn’t do it when I was young,” she said. “I’m not going to start now.”
No, I didn’t do it when I was young. I’m not going to start now.
Hillary Clinton, on whether she had smoked marijuana
Allen St. Pierre, who resigned last month as the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he doubted that Hillary Clinton was telling the truth.
“I think she and her husband were absolutely in the mainstream of baby boomers in the 1960s, which meant they smoked marijuana, they took hallucinogenics and they drank alcohol to excess,” he said. “And then they became parents and they put that behavior behind them.”
I think she and her husband were absolutely in the mainstream of baby boomers in the 1960s, which meant they smoked marijuana, they took hallucinogenics and they drank alcohol to excess.
Allen St. Pierre, former executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, on Hillary Clinton
Nadelmann said he figured that Trump, coming from the entertainment world, had to be “semi-relaxed” about marijuana. And while he’s not expecting Clinton to take the lead on marijuana issues if she wins the presidency, he said it was plausible that she didn’t smoke pot.
“I graduated from college in 1979, and that was probably the peak of marijuana use, and even then I had friends who never touched the stuff,” Nadelmann said.
In a report card from the Marijuana Policy Project, another pro-legalization group, Clinton got a “B+” while Trump received a “C+.” The group gave “A+” grades to two other presidential candidates: former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party.
“This is the most marijuana-friendly field of presidential candidates in history,” Robert Capecchi, the organization’s director of federal policies, said when the report card was released in May.
Tom Angell, the chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority, said 2016 marked the first time that all remaining presidential candidates had promised to respect state marijuana laws.
“In 2008, our movement had to physically chase down candidates during the New Hampshire primary just to elicit promises not to arrest cancer patients who were abiding by state medical marijuana laws,” he said. “That shows how far we’ve come in only a couple election cycles.”
Obama got in front of the issue in 2006, poking fun at Bill Clinton for claiming that he had never inhaled marijuana.
“I inhaled frequently. That was the point,” Obama said.
In a 2012 book on Obama, biographer David Maraniss described how Obama had smoked pot with his buddies at the Punahou School in Hawaii.
Maraniss, who won a Pulitzer prize in 1993 for reporting on Bill Clinton, said Obama had helped start a trend called “TA,” or “total absorption,” in which he and his friends were penalized for exhaling: They’d have to pass the next time the joint came around. The book detailed how they enjoyed doing “roof hits,” closing the car windows and tilting their heads head back to suck in all the leftover smoke from the ceiling.
As president, Obama said he’d grown up in a home without a father and was angry about it: “I made bad choices. I got high, without always thinking about the harm that it could do.”
I made bad choices. I got high, without always thinking about the harm that it could do.
President Barack Obama
While no one knows how many of the 44 presidents have smoked marijuana, there has been lots of speculation.
In 2014, High Times, the chronicler of all things marijuana, put the number at 11. In addition to Obama and Clinton, the magazine’s list comprised George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Pierce, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
The California Cannabis Coalition played it a bit more conservatively, estimating the number at seven by excluding Pierce, Taylor, Jackson and Monroe.
11 The number of U.S. presidents who smoked marijuana, according to High Times magazine
Many contend that Washington doesn’t belong on the list because he only grew hemp at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.
One president who didn’t make the list was Richard Nixon, who signed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the law that classified marijuana as the most dangerous Schedule 1 drug, similar to LSD and heroin.
In a declassified conversation with a top aide released as part of the Nixon tapes, the president said he wanted a national commission to make “a goddamn strong statement about marijuana,” one that “just tears the ass out of them.”
In a crude display of anti-Semitism, Nixon could be heard on the recording saying: “That’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them?”
Jimmy Carter never made the list of pot smokers but he tried a softer approach on regulation. He called for an end to federal penalties for possession of up to 1 ounce of pot, “leaving the states free to adopt whatever laws they wish,” but his proposal went nowhere.
Ronald Reagan went back to Nixon’s get-tough approach, saying marijuana use could cause “permanent ill effects.” And he said that “marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.”
Marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.
President Ronald Reagan
Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, stepped up the war on drugs in 1988, saying “legalization is just another word for surrender, and surrender is not in our vocabulary.”
Bush’s son, George W. Bush, made the list of pot smokers after getting outed by a friend, Doug Wead, who secretly taped some of his conversations with Bush before he ran for president.
According to a report published by The New York Times in 2005, Bush told Wead that he wouldn’t answer reporters’ questions about marijuana “because I don’t want some little kid doing what I tried.” After he left the White House, Bush joked with TV host Jay Leno that he “didn’t behave that well” when he was younger: “I might have smoked some.”
With Clinton leading in the polls, many pot backers say she’ll come under heavy pressure in coming months, with the Democratic national platform calling for a “pathway” to legalization for the first time.
St. Pierre predicted that the heaviest lobbying will come in California, where the pot industry carries much clout.
“She’s going to have to go the San Francisco Bay Area to fill her money pots up,” St. Pierre said. “And the industry will be right there in her face. . . . California is such a canary in the coal mine.”
Angell said a victory by either Clinton or Trump would bring a big change in 2017, the first time since 1993 that a “cannabis virgin” would occupy the White House.
But for legalization backers, only time will tell whether it makes any real difference if a president once smoked pot.
“I guess all things being equal, it probably helps a bit if they did,” Nadelmann said. “But it didn’t seem to help very much with George Bush, and it didn’t help very much with Bill Clinton. I think Obama was probably a little more chill about it because of his personal experience.”