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Platform Check: Presidential Candidates On Legalizing Marijuana


Now for an issue that doesn't get a lot of time on the campaign trail but will be something the next president has to deal with - what to do about the nation's growing patchwork of marijuana laws. That's our topic on this week's Platform Check, where we examine what the candidates would do if they were president. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is in the studio with us. Welcome back, Carrie.


CORNISH: So nine states will vote on marijuana-related ballot measures this fall. Five would legalize the drug for recreational use, four for medical use. But under federal law right now, it's still illegal to possess or sell marijuana, right?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Marijuana is tightly restricted under the Controlled Substances Act. Authorities believe it has a high potential for abuse, and there's no federal currently accepted medical use. Under the law, it gets the same treatment as heroin and LSD.

And just last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration rejected attempts to loosen some of those restrictions on marijuana - what's called rescheduling the drug. Here's what the DEA leader, Chuck Rosenberg, told me about that.

CHUCK ROSENBERG: Well, marijuana is not as dangerous as heroin, for instance - clearly not as dangerous. But this decision isn't based on danger. This decision is based on whether or not marijuana, as determined by the FDA, is a safe and effective medicine. And it's not.

JOHNSON: The DEA did open up a way for more universities and institutions to grow marijuana for federal research purposes, and the Obama administration says it does support a lot more study of whether some component part of marijuana could be useful for medical patients.

CORNISH: All right, so that's where things stand right now at this White House. And we're going to dig into what the presidential candidates have been saying, starting with Hillary Clinton.

JOHNSON: Clinton says she wants to reschedule marijuana to loosen some of those restrictions on it. She talked about her thinking on a town hall on ABC this year.


HILLARY CLINTON: And we need to be doing research on it because I am a hundred percent in favor of medical uses for marijuana. But I want to know what the evidence is.

I'm also someone who believes that the states can be those laboratories of democracy. So I'm watching carefully what's happening in the states that have legalized it.

JOHNSON: In other words, Hillary Clinton wants more science and to leave things to the states.

CORNISH: Now, what has Donald Trump said about all this?

JOHNSON: Audie, it's been a little bit difficult to pin Donald Trump down. The campaign didn't respond to my request for detailed information. Twenty-five years ago, long before Donald Trump became a national political figure, he said he backed legalization of marijuana, at least for adults. But Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News host, asked Trump about his position on this issue back in February.


DONALD TRUMP: I would really want to think about that one, Bill...

BILL O'REILLY: All right.

TRUMP: ...Because in some ways, I think it's good, and in other ways, it's bad. I do want to see what the medical effects are.

JOHNSON: Audie, Trump went on to say he's a hundred percent in favor of medical marijuana. I talked today with Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalizing the drug, and Collins told me that close aides to Donald Trump, people like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, have taken a hard line against marijuana legalization.

CORNISH: Now, what about the third party candidates Jill Stein and Gary Johnson? I know this issue does come up quite a bit for them.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Gary Johnson actually worked as CEO of a marijuana business, a job that he left to run as the Libertarian candidate for the White House. He has openly talked about his use of medical marijuana, though he says he's stopped doing that when he began the run for the White House. He's endorsed by the Marijuana Policy Project, which has given him an A-plus on the issue. They gave Jill Stein of the Green Party an A-plus as well.

CORNISH: That's NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.