Bernie, like every other presidential candidate in the 2016 scuffle, knows that this year theyll all have to take drug-policy reform at least somewhat seriously.
Every presidential candidate in the 2016 scuffle has to take drug-policy reform at least somewhat seriously. Rich Smith

This is the first presidential election in US history that will require all the serious candidates, from both parties, to say at least quasi-intelligent things about drug-policy reform. Even Donald Trump (but I cannot yet admit a reality in which Trump’s candidacy is anything other than a covert reality-TV stunt that he’ll cash in on later).

The cannabis-legalization juggernaut keeps rolling across the country. Last week, Florida, Massachusetts, and Vermont all took steps toward legalization. The Massachusetts attorney general, for example, approved two pot initiatives while blocking a proposal to legalize fireworks. And presidential candidates have been rolling out new drug-policy messaging.

The most impressive came from Hillary Clinton, who proposed a $7.5 billion program to shift the federal government’s focus from incarceration to treatment.

“Plain and simple, drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, not a moral failing,” she (or someone on her team) wrote for an editorial in the New Hampshire Union Leader last week. Her five-point plan: prevention education for teens, expansion of treatment, distribution of the overdose-halting drug naloxone (yes!), better training for health-care workers, and to “prioritize treatment over prison for nonviolent drug offenders so we can end the era of mass incarceration.”

Her proposal, of course, is just as trustworthy as any campaign promise. But it’s forcing the debate.

The day after Clinton’s editorial, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, of all people—who, this summer, promised to crack down on post-prohibition states if he’s elected president—released an ad putting drug reform and pro-life politics on the same plane of moral urgency:

“Every life is precious," he says, "not only for the baby in the womb. We need to be pro-life for the 16-year-old drug addict who’s laying on the floor of the county jail… the way to really win the war on drugs is to treat the addict.” There are all kinds of problems with that—not least because "winning" the "war on drugs" will also require a more sophisticated way of thinking about drug use that moves beyond the binary of addict/not-addict—but his framing of drug-policy reform in terms of right-wing ethics is a strange kind of progress.

As for the other candidates: Bernie Sanders hasn’t said much but has cosponsored bills to loosen federal restrictions on cannabis in the past; Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Carly Fiorina have all taken refuge in a federalist, states-rights approach; Marco Rubio holds the dismal pro-enforcement line; and Jeb! Bush seems confused.

Jeb! has threatened federal crackdowns but, according to the New York Times, told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that states should be allowed to decide whether to legalize.

Almost all the candidates seem to realize the old tough-on-drugs rhetoric isn’t good politics anymore—especially in the states with the first two primaries. New numbers from Public Policy Polling (in a study commissioned by the nonprofit Marijuana Majority) show 71 percent of Iowa voters and 73 percent of New Hampshire voters think “the next president” should “respect state marijuana laws,” including a majority of Republicans in both states.

Then there’s Trump and his recently exhumed 1990 comments at a luncheon in Miami, where he said he supported legalizing all drugs.

“We’re losing badly the war on drugs,” Trump was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune. “You have to legalize drugs to win that war.” But earlier this year, Trump told Sean Hannity that Colorado’s legal cannabis is “bad—and I feel strongly about that.” But, he added, “medical marijuana is another thing.”

The simple fact that Republicans are wobbly on the issue is great news for the rest of us—and a sign that the post-prohibition movement is winning.