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The Clintons seem a lot more relaxed on marijuana

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images News

Bill and Hillary Clinton appear to be taking more relaxed stances on marijuana legalization and medical marijuana as Hillary Clinton potentially prepares for a 2016 bid for the White House.

In an interview with Meet the Press's David Gregory on Tuesday, Bill Clinton said he's okay with letting states experiment with relaxed marijuana laws.

"I think there's a lot of evidence to argue for the medical marijuana thing," he said. "I think there are a lot of unresolved questions, but I think we should leave it to the states. This really is a time when there should be laboratories of democracy, because nobody really knows where this is going."

Hillary Clinton made similarly cautious comments last week in a town hall hosted by CNN.

"On recreational, you know, states are the laboratories of democracy," Hillary Clinton said. "We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now. I want to wait and see what the evidence is."

The Clintons' comments don't come anywhere near suggesting they're now in favor of marijuana legalization. But they represent a major shift from the Clinton administration of the 1990s, which drew a lawsuit for its attempts to stop the spread of medical marijuana through the states.

The comments are also a shift from the campaign in 2007, when Hillary Clinton voiced opposition to even decriminalization.

"I don't think we should decriminalize it," Hillary Clinton said back then. "But we ought to do research [into] what, if any, benefits it has."

Public opinion on marijuana is changing as well

If the Clintons are evolving on this issue, it coincides with a nationwide shift in public opinion about marijuana.

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For Democrats who rely far more on young voters than their Republican counterparts, the shift in public opinion is even more pressing. In a lot of ways, this issue mirrors the public's shift on same-sex marriage — another issue that Hillary Clinton changed her stance on.

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Beyond the shifts in public opinion, the Clintons also have future ballot initiatives to consider. Advocates are currently working to get marijuana legalization on the ballot in two potential swing states: Nevada and Arizona. If these measures get on the ballot, it's likely that Hillary Clinton's liberal, younger base would be heavily in support — and she would be out of step if she spoke out against legal pot.

Even leaving it to the states could require federal policy changes

Just leaving the issue to the states could require its own policy changes at the federal level. The federal government currently obstructs states' relaxed marijuana laws in various ways, ranging from limits in federal tax deductions to restrictions on federal waterways.

The restrictions are one of the reasons the House and Senate are considering limiting the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration's ability to interfere with state marijuana laws. They're also why marijuana legalization advocates are keeping a close eye on the federal government's review of marijuana restrictions, even though that review is still very much a work in progress.

So if the Clintons really do support leaving it to the states, Hillary Clinton will probably have to consider some serious reforms in drug enforcement if she wins the White House.

Further reading


Update: Added a link and quote from the full Bill Clinton interview, which aired after this post was published.