As part of his focus on the millennial voters and college students, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul visited the University of Colorado ahead of the GOP debate on Wednesday. He discussed several items currently floating around the zeitgeist — but focused the bulk of his comments on the legalization of marijuana at the state level.
“I want to give you an idea what it’s like in Washington,” Paul told the students about their state’s legalization of marijuana. “They are really, really worried about you. … And I kid you not, they think you are wielding axes and running naked through the streets. They think it’s utter mayhem out here.”
Paul didn’t make a personal plea for legalization, rather he couched his remarks on legalization in the flag of freedom.
“I’m not here to advocate for marijuana,” Paul continued. “But I’m here to advocate for freedom. And you know what, if I’m president I’m going to leave Colorado the hell alone.”
This is not Paul’s first go-around pushing back against legislators and scaremongers who feel marijuana prohibition should be prohibited on the federal level — not by a long shot. In fact, earlier in May the Kentucky Republican attended the Cannabis Business Summit in Denver, effectively becoming the first presidential candidate to tie his name and reputation to the movement to legalize pot.
“It’s the first event that we know of that a presidential candidate will be involved in the industry,” Taylor West, the National Cannabis Industry Association deputy director, told The Denver Post in May. “He’s kind of in a class of his own.”
Paul is sui generis, at least in regards to his “state’s rights” approach to the legalization of pot.
It also looks like Paul is trying to stay well ahead of the curve on America’ constantly changing attitudes toward marijuana. As of today, nearly 60 percent of Americans now favor legalizing pot, including 71 percent of adults under age 35 — a reality that has apparently not been lost on the Bluegrass State senator. Granted, Republican support is hovering around 39 percent overall, but, in reflecting the general population, 63 percent of millennial Republicans and 47 percent of Gen Xers are already there.
Still, even with Paul’s recent overtures to the marijuana industry, some libertarians — Reason.org’s Matt Welch in particular — feel the senator needs to go all in on legalization, if not for freedom, then at least to secure his bona fides as a politician who actually does what he says he’s going to do.
Again, Welch, like other libertarians confused by Paul’s stance on legalization, has taken to criticizing the senator’s official position on regarding marijuana legalization — a position thus stated: “I really haven’t taken a stand on…the actual legalization. I haven’t really taken a stand on that, but I’m against the federal government telling them they can’t.”
Personally calling for a repeal of state prohibition, Welch writes in a recent column at Reason, would lend Paul’s campaign an air authenticity, opportunism, and a way to stake out an endgame: freedom.
1) Authenticity. Voters so far this election cycle are flocking to candidates they perceive to be speaking deeply held, unpopular truths. Your go-to quote about legalization, while perfectly in keeping with good federalist principles, is nevertheless the opposite of that: “I really haven’t taken a stand on…the actual legalization. I haven’t really taken a stand on that, but I’m against the federal government telling them they can’t.”
Have Donald Trump and Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders surprised all prognosticators this cycle by saying “I haven’t really taken a stand on that”? No, they have not. That phrase signals a politician calculating how much of his own beliefs he can get away with advocating. And while I have and will continue to applaud you for the approach of figuring out how best to mainstream libertarian ideas within the unfriendly confines of the Republican Party and United States Senate, Beto O’Rourke is onto something when it comes to the phantom opposition to this particular position.
To put it bluntly (sorry!), 58 percent of Americans now favor legalizing pot, including 71 percent of adults under age 35 (I hear your comeback depends heavily on the support of student groups?). Yes, Republican support is just around 39 percent overall, but 63 percent of millennial Republicans and 47 percent of Gen Xers are already there. Given trendlines and demographics, what looks like a lonely Republican position today will be crowded tomorrow.
2) Opportunism. Americans have been watching these GOP debates in record numbers; ask Carly Fiorina how important it is to dominate a post-debate news cycle. “Republican Candidate Comes Out for Legal Weed in Colorado”? The headline writes itself.
But these contests are also about contrast. Wherever you differ from the entire rest of the stage should be seen as an opportunity, not a danger. That goes for being a spending hawk, an intervention skeptic, and a criminal justice reformer. A majority of the GOP field has now moved to your position of respecting Colorado’s legalization, which sounds like an opportunity to create some new distance. You haven’t topped 5 percent in a national poll in two months, so maybe it’s time to stop worrying about the downside risks.
3) Endgame. Let’s imagine the most likely scenario, statistically: you do not win the GOP nomination, and you retain your Senate seat. That means you’ll be in national politics until at least 2023, perhaps in a position to run for president again. What do you want, policy-wise, to happen over the next eight years?
Among other prominent and important goals, you want like hell for the drug war to end. You hate that damn thing. “I’ll do everything to end the war on drugs,” you told Bill Maher last year.
Of course, Paul discussed several other issues during his University of Colorado visit, including budget talks, the Bill of Rights, the need to uphold the Constitution, and, naturally, Donald Trump’s deference toward eminent domain. All of these issues took a backseat to marijuana, though.
Paul will attend other fundraisers in Boulder prior to the debate.