Obama, 2016 Contenders Deal With Changing Attitudes On Marijuana : It's All Politics As Americans move toward more favorable views of pot, politicians are moving, too — in some cases.

Obama, 2016 Contenders Deal With Changing Attitudes On Marijuana

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Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, and almost half of the states allow medicinal marijuana. President Obama says that if that number keeps growing, Congress might change federal penalties, but legislators are acting already. Some lawmakers, like Kentucky Senator Randy Paul, are pushing a bill that would remove federal prohibitions on medical marijuana across the country. NPR's Juana Summers reports on the pot politics on Capitol Hill.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: In an interview with VICE News, President Obama says that the gap between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to marijuana is narrowing.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I'm encouraged by is you're starting to see not just liberal Democrats, but also some very conservative Republicans recognize this doesn't make sense.

SUMMERS: Obama says that if enough states decriminalize marijuana, then Congress could reclassify it. That means recognizing marijuana's accepted medical use. Currently, it's classified as a Schedule 1 drug like heroin or LSD. Advocates say that Obama doesn't technically need Congress to reclassify marijuana. He could just do it himself.

Either way, the Senate is already taking a crack at it. Making marijuana a Schedule 2 drug is part of a bill introduced by Republican Rand Paul from Kentucky, as well as Democrats Cory Booker from New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand from New York. Their bill would reschedule marijuana, but only in the 23 states where it has been legalized for medicinal use. Paul says this boils down to state and individual rights and that public opinion is changing, too.


SENATOR RAND PAUL: We, as a society, are changing our opinions on restricting people's choices as far as medical treatments.

SUMMERS: Paul is a vocal opponent of the war on drugs, so his stance is hardly a surprise. But some other voices you maybe wouldn't expect are taking a similar tone.


SEAN HANNITY: Colorado - good idea legalizing marijuana, bad idea?

SENATOR TED CRUZ: Well, I was told Colorado provided the brownies here today.

SUMMERS: That's Fox News' Sean Hannity interviewing Texas Senator Ted Cruz at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference.


CRUZ: Look, I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the laboratories of democracy. If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that's their prerogative. I don't agree with it, but that's their right.

SUMMERS: Legalization was a big winner at the gathering of conservative activists. Roughly two-thirds of those who participated in the conference's straw poll say they supported legalization for either medical or recreational purposes. That didn't appear to be lost on the politicians who took the stage. Here's how former Florida Governor Jeb Bush answered Hannity's question.


JEB BUSH: I thought it was a bad idea, but states ought to have that right to do it. I would have voted no if I was in Colorado.

SUMMERS: The GOP's emphasis on states' rights fits neatly into the long-held Republican belief that the federal government should keep its hands out of local affairs. It also hits a political sweet spot - a clear majority of Americans back more liberal marijuana laws.

Dan Riffle is the federal policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project. He says Congress is behind the curve and that last week's bill, combined with comments by Republican would-be candidates, shows lawmakers are finally starting to catch up.

DAN RIFFLE: Medical marijuana is more popular in this country than baseball and apple pie, and it's certainly more popular than Congress.

SUMMERS: Whether any bill that would loosen laws surrounding marijuana could pass both chambers of Congress is uncertain, especially as some House Republicans continue to swear off with the District of Columbia over its recent vote to legalize marijuana. Juana Summers, NPR News, the Capitol.

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