The Republican presidential nominating contest has barely begun, and already we're talking about marijuana. This is yet another issue most Republicans would just as soon not discuss, since public opinion is moving away from them and they haven't quite figured out how fast they should follow after it. But at the moment, Jeb Bush can thank Barack Obama for paving the way for him to dismiss his own youthful pot smoking as no big deal—at least nothing that should make anyone want to vote against him.
The new information about young Jeb's experimentation with cannabis comes from this article by the Boston Globe's Michael Kranish on Jeb's years at the Phillips Andover Academy. While, as a general matter, no adult human should be judged on what they did in their teens—and the last two presidents were each elected and reelected despite their share of youthful indiscretions—stories like this one always open a window into a different time and, in Jeb's case, how the other half (of the one percent) live.
According to Kranish, Bush was a terrible student whose indifference to schoolwork threatened to besmirch the family name, no small matter at a place where he had been preceded by his brother George and his father, who sat on the school's board of trustees. But he found things to do with his time:
The students divided into cliques of "jocks, freaks, and zeros," as one classmate put it, and many classmates say Bush, with his taste for marijuana and his skill at tennis, straddled the line between jock and freak, never comfortably in either group.
One of those who did get to know Bush in these early days was Peter Tibbetts. The connection, he said, was pot. The first time Tibbetts smoked marijuana, he said, was with Bush and a few other classmates in the woods near Pemberton Cottage. Then, a few weeks later, Tibbetts said he smoked hashish—a cannabis product typically stronger than pot—in Jeb's dormitory room.
"The first time I really got stoned was in Jeb's room," Tibbetts said. "He had a portable stereo with removable speakers. He put on Steppenwolf for me." As the rock group's signature song, "Magic Carpet Ride,'' blared from the speakers, Tibbetts said he smoked hash with Bush.
He said he once bought hashish from Bush but stressed, in a follow-up e-mail, "Please bear in mind that I was seeking the hash. It wasn't as if he was a dealer, though he did suggest I take up cigarettes so that I could hold my hits better, after that first joint."
Bush previously has acknowledged what he called his "stupid" and "wrong" use of marijuana. In the years since, he has opposed efforts to legalize marijuana for medicinal or recreational use.
It's a familiar position, particularly for a Republican, one that says that marijuana is terrible and should be illegal, even though I didn't suffer any negative consequences for using it. Because what are the cops going to do, come raid a dorm at Andover and haul away Poppy Bush's boy? I don't think so.
That's exactly how Rand Paul decided to attack Bush: "I think in politics the biggest thing, the thing that voters from any part of the spectrum hate worse than anything is hypocrisy," Paul said. "And hypocrisy is, 'Hey, I did it and it's O.K. for me because I was rich and at an elite school, but if you're poor and black or brown and live in a poor section of one of our big cities, we're going to put you in jail and throw away the key.'"
It's still early enough that seeing Republicans criticizing one another is jarring. But here's the Republican dilemma on the pot issue: On one hand, most of them sincerely think it should be illegal. They view drug use as a marker of weak morals, and pot, in particular, is still firmly on one side of the culture war line. On the other hand, not only do a majority of Americans now support legalization, views on the issue are closely correlated with age. In this Pew poll, 70 percent of those under 30 support legalization, compared to only 32 percent of those over 65. Republicans are heavily reliant on senior citizens, but would like to get more support from younger voters. Even if it's the top voting issue only for a small number of voters, to Republicans it's another symbol of how their problems with the national electorate will only get worse in the future.
So for the moment, they'd rather not spend a great deal of time debating it. But much as Ted Cruz isn't going to let other GOP presidential candidates get away with changing the subject when same-sex marriage comes up, Rand Paul is going to press them on this issue, since it's a way for him to distinguish himself from the field. While Paul doesn't support legalization for recreational use, he introduced legislation to allow states that have legalized medical marijuana not to fear interference from the DEA (a similar provision was included in the budget passed in December, though it got only a bit of notice from the media), wants to decrease penalties for possession, and supported the District of Columbia's right to legalize pot (D.C. voters passed a legalization referendum in November; that same federal budget included an amendment forbidding the law from going into effect).
In some ways, the differences between Paul and some of the other 2016 contenders are smaller than they might appear; candidates like Rick Perry and Marco Rubio have expressed an openness to states making their own decisions on marijuana as well. There's a big stylistic difference, however: Paul may be the only one of them who doesn't bother prefacing every single comment on the issue with a condemnation of the demon weed's ghastly effect on all who sample it (though he will do so on occasion; no one should mistake him for an actual advocate of pot-smoking). Most importantly, he has been proactively addressing the issue, while the others only talk about it when forced to.
But it will be hard to avoid in 2016, because there will be legalization initiatives on the ballot all over the country. After sitting out the 2014 election in most places (though initiatives passed in D.C., Alaska, and Oregon), marijuana advocates are ready for a major push in 2016, when the presidential election will bring out a younger and more diverse electorate. There will be ballot measures in at least a half-dozen states and maybe more, and at least a couple of them are likely to be swing states where the presidential candidates will be campaigning.
That means that anyone running for president is going to have to come up with a clear answer on the issue of marijuana legalization. That includes not only some Republicans who admit having used it themselves, but also another child of the 1960's who was far too buttoned up to indulge at the time. I wouldn't be surprised if her position starts evolving before long.