A “loud and clear” change is coming in the public perception of cannabis, predicts Donald Trump.
Rand Paul aside, support for cannabis reform has been extremely scarce among Republican politicians seeking high elected office. That changed last week when the unquestioned Republican presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump of New York, said he absolutely, 100 percent, backed legal medical cannabis.
Last Wednesday morning after the New Hampshire primary, I wrote, “As an opportunist, Trump could consider cannabis reform if he were persuaded it helped him politically.”
Later that same day, Trump appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show and confronted a series of O’Reilly’s anti-pot arguments to say he smells that opportunity.
“Medical marijuana … medical? I am in favor of it 100 percent,” said Trump.
The conversation began when O’Reilly brought up Colorado’s now nearly $1 billion annual marijuana industry and asked Trump what should be done about “dealers” using legal cover to produce in Colorado and then go “zoomin’ around the country sellin’ it” illegally.
Trump did agree vaguely with the premise, but then immediately pivoted to tell O’Reilly the real problem is that his friends who need it can’t get medical marijuana.
“It’s a real problem. It’s a real problem. There’s another problem. In Colorado, you know, the book isn’t written on it yet, but there’s a lot of difficulty in terms of illness, and what’s going on with the brain and the mind, and what it’s doing. So, you know, it’s coming out probably over the next year or so, it’s going to come out loud and clear.”
O’Reilly pressed Trump to say what he would do if president.
“I would really want to think about that one, Bill, because in some ways, I think it’s good, and other ways it’s bad. I do want to see what the medical effects are. I have to see what the medical effects are.”
Trump returned to O’Reilly’s original point that there were “a lot of problems out there” in Colorado surrounding pot legalization and said he cared about addressing them.
When O’Reilly called medical marijuana itself “a ruse,” Trump rebutted the point with his personal experience in knowing people whose lives have been helped with medical use. With O’Reilly condescendingly “OK”-ing Trump to dismiss his point, Trump pushed forward.
“I know people that have serious problems, and they did that, and they really, it really does help them.”
For O’Reilly’s part, marijuana has long been a personal gripe. He famously derided Jon Stewart’s Daily Show audience as “stoners and slackers,” in 2004. That interview fueled a longtime, entertaining, point-counterpoint duel between the two influential television hosts when polling immediately revealed that Stewart’s “stoners” were far more informed than O’Reilly’s audience.
Trump’s position immediately becomes a more progressive stance than the one Hillary Clinton has taken. Clinton has taken the mildest possible approach to reform, keeping pot criminalized and only allowing research access on the level of cocaine or methamphetamine. Her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, has called for marijuana to be unscheduled entirely and made legal, and he speaks to the injustices surrounding the criminalization of marijuana routinely in his stump speech and in debates.
Cannabis is a perfect example to illustrate a broader Trump candidate trait that too many commentators miss. Trump has shown dexterity in seizing issues that are deeply emotional to people and speaking directly to them. He’s a newcomer to running for or holding elected office, so he has more freedom to take more current consensus views toward which other politicians have had to “evolve,” lest they be punished politically. “Ronald Reagan was strong like me, and he used to be a liberal” seems to work well enough, or so says a thundering drumbeat of polls for the past eight months.
His operating theory is that by galvanizing more energy in the electorate from all sorts of emotional angles – that do not have to be ideologically coherent – he will gain attention, and attention leads to votes. It’s been a long time since anyone tried this in the rigid two-party system in a way that had a chance of working.
Which is itself part of the appeal. In Saturday night’s debate-for-the-ages in Greenville, South Carolina, Trump called himself a “common sense conservative.” He sees the pro-legalization pollingamong younger, potentially available and persuadable voters. He sees that the 2016 campaign so far has been a potential generational earthquake year. And he’s probably highly attuned to storieslike the one Bill Maher spotlighted in his viral New Rule from last Friday night about a medically-suffering veteran who lost his kids over cannabis for moving to the wrong state. Trump isn’t a longtime cannabis advocate bravely standing up for an issue he believes in; cannabis injustice is simply the kind of emotional human content that strikes Trump as juicy for exploitation.
This is why Trump said this week he considers his pledge to not run as an independent null and void. His opportunism isn’t ideological.
Last week, he opportunistically took cannabis policy reform to a different level. If he faces Hillary Clinton in the fall and she does not modify her position, cannabis advocates will find themselves divided. Those advising Clinton would be wise to grasp this, and her ally President Obama still has time to take action that gives her cover. Trump has just outflanked Clinton to her left on marijuana.
What do you think? Could a presidential candidate’s viewpoint on marijuana change your vote?