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Republican voters to feds: Butt out of marijuana reform

'Legalize it' is written on the side of a giant joint during a demonstration to demand the legalization of cannabis, in Berlin on Aug. 8. (Rainer Jensen/European Pressphoto Agency)
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By significant margins, Republican voters in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire say that states should be able to carry out their own marijuana laws without federal interference. Sixty-four percent of GOP voters in Iowa say that states should be able to carry out their own laws vs. only 21 percent who say that the federal government should arrest and prosecute people who are following state marijuana laws.

In New Hampshire, that margin is even slightly higher with 67 percent of GOP voters saying the feds should stay out.

These numbers come from recent surveys conducted by Public Policy Polling and commissioned by reform group Marijuana Majority. They come as some GOP candidates, such as Gov. Chris Christie (N.J.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), have stepped up their anti-marijuana rhetoric in recent weeks.

"We put these polls into the field because we want presidential candidates to understand that the voters in these key states — who they need support from to win — overwhelmingly want the next occupant of the Oval Office to scale back federal marijuana prohibition," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, in a statement.

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But, he added, "a small handful of the contenders are still talking about sending in the DEA to arrest people who are following state law, and we hope these new numbers send a message to those outliers that this type of outdated drug war bullying just isn't going to score any points in 2016."

In a New Hampshire town hall meeting in late July, Christie told voters, "if you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it. As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws." He recently released a TV ad accusing President Obama of "lawlessness" for, among other things, allowing state-level marijuana laws to stand.

Asked about marijuana recently, Rubio said that “I believe the federal government needs to enforce federal law.” In May, he told ABC News, "Marijuana is illegal under federal law. That should be enforced."

Christie and Rubio are currently polling in 11th and fifth place in the GOP horserace, respectively. Opinions like theirs are increasingly outside the mainstream of GOP thought. Many Republican presidential candidates have said that while they don't condone marijuana use or legalization personally, they nonetheless support the right of states to chart their own policy on marijuana law. This is the current position of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former tech excutive Carly Fiorina, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), former Texas governor Rick Perry and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.). Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.) has given somewhat muddled responses to the question. Billionaire businessman Donald Trump has so far kept mum on state marijuana laws.

Marijuana policy is not a make-or-break issue like jobs or the economy for most voters. But in a crowded primary field, it could mean the difference between, say, a seat at the main debate table and relegation to the sidelines.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has been hinting for months now that he'll have more to say on marijuana soon. Marijuana reform advocates are hoping the Vermont senator will introduce a platform fully supporting recreational marijuana. This would sharply distinguish him from his primary rival Hillary Clinton.

The former secretary of state has mostly avoided talking about pot. Her clearest statements on the topic came during a CNN interview last summer, when she said that she wants to wait and see what happens in the states that have already legalized marijuana before deciding what to do about it at the federal level. From a practical standpoint this stance is more or less identical to what GOP candidates like Bush and Fiorina have been saying.

Candidates will likely have to contend with the fact that opposition to federal interference in state marijuana policy also runs high among state lawmakers. Earlier this month the National Conference of State Legislators passed a resolution urging the federal government not just to butt out of state laws, but also amend the Controlled Substances Act to enshrine a federal hands-off approach to pot in the law.