A generation ago, the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHillary Clinton is out, but she won't be invisible House Democrats are making oversight great again Trump to allow lawsuits to proceed against Cuban property seizures MORE, insisted he had not inhaled marijuana when he smoked in college.
A decade ago, Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee who hung out with the Choom Gang in high school, offered tepid support for allowing those with medical needs to access marijuana.
Next year, the person who becomes the Democratic nominee against President Trump will almost certainly back full-scale federal legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.
Virtually every major candidate running for president has publicly supported a raft of proposals to legalize marijuana, erase past convictions for minor possession and remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Even those few who do not back recreational use support measures far more permissive than did Obama when he ran.
It is a sea change of epic proportions, one that mirrors radical reversals in public policy of the recent past like the expansion of multistate lottery games in the 1980s and 1990s or the embrace of same-sex marriage laws in the 2000s and 2010s.
In all three cases, hesitant politicians who were once loath to take a risky stand found themselves at odds with a more permissive public that no longer found legalization outside the mainstream.
Today, being in favor of marijuana legalization is about more than just appealing to young voters.
Candidates also use it as a window into conversations about racial justice and criminal justice reform.
“The war on drugs has not been a war on drugs, it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately people of color and low-income individuals,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said earlier this year.
Booker has introduced a measure to legalize marijuana at the federal level and to expunge the records of those who have been charged with using or possessing small amounts of pot. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) all support his bill.
Warren has sponsored a measure with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) that would prohibit the federal government from interfering with states where marijuana is now legal. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has not signed on to Booker’s bill, backs Warren’s measure.
The language today’s candidates use is also a dramatic departure from the past, when candidates like Clinton distanced themselves from their youthful indiscretions.
Harris, who acknowledged smoking pot in college, said in one of her first interviews as a candidate that marijuana “gives a lot of people joy, and we need more joy.”
In an interview on the same radio program, “The Breakfast Club,” Sanders said legalization “will be a major step forward in the struggle for a fairer, less racist criminal justice system.” Booker called for federal legalization in an interview on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show.”
Support for legalization reflects not just a generational change in the Democratic Party, but a personal evolution for several presidential candidates as well.
Then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) both opposed ballot measures to legalize marijuana in their states in 2012.
After those measures passed, both men worked to set up recreational regimes, and both now support legalization.
In an interview with Time magazine, Hickenlooper called legalization “one of the great social experiments.” In his first press conference as a candidate, Inslee said “it’s about time” for marijuana to become legal at the federal level.
Earlier this year, Inslee granted official pardons to thousands of Washington residents convicted of low-level possession charges.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) has sponsored several pro-marijuana bills. Former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) co-sponsored bills to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs under the Controlled Substances Act. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has said he supports states legalizing pot.
The Democrat who takes the most conservative line on marijuana is Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Brown told voters in South Carolina last week that he opposes legalization, though he supports decriminalizing it and allowing access for those with medical needs.
Opponents of marijuana legalization hope that the rhetoric is more about appealing to voters on the campaign trail than it is about real policy priorities.
Kevin Sabet, a former Obama administration official in the Office of National Drug Control Policy who now heads the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said several of the candidates have told him they feel painted into a corner on legalization.
“When [some candidates] talk about marijuana, it is in the context of decriminalization,” Sabet said in an email. “None of them say the marijuana industry is a great thing, and I think that’s a key distinction.”
Even Obama, freed from the burdens of ever having to face voters again, has evolved.
In an interview with Rolling Stone after the 2016 election, Obama said it would become “untenable” for the Justice Department or the Drug Enforcement Administration “to be enforcing a patchwork of laws, where something that’s legal in one state could get you a 20-year prison sentence in another.”
“This is a debate that is now ripe, much in the same way that we ended up making progress on same-sex marriage,” Obama said.
The rapid political evolution on marijuana legalization mirrors the speed with which public opinion changed on lotteries and same-sex marriage in some respects, as societal taboos fell away and polls showed voters accepted change.
But in another sense, support for marijuana legalization has differed from those two issues: This time, voters are the ones giving politicians permission to adapt.
Three decades ago, legislators hungry for new revenue streams expanded lottery games, over the objections of social conservatives.
Almost two decades ago, courts began allowing same-sex marriage, over the objections of even prominent Democratic politicians.
Marijuana legalization, by contrast, has been spearheaded by activists who take to the ballot box, where recreational use has now been approved in nine states and the District of Columbia.
Only one state — Vermont — has legalized marijuana through the legislature, albeit in a very different regulatory structure than the other states.
“We see what happens in the referenda in blue, purple and red states. Voters support it. Not that it is going to be such a persuasive issue, but there is absolutely no negative effect or backlash for supporting legalization,” said Corey Platt, a Democratic strategist running a super PAC that backs Inslee for president. “The base and people in the middle support it. Whenever there is an issue that works for the base and swing voters there is no reason to be against it.”
Today, a majority of Americans back legalizing recreational marijuana.
A Pew Research Center survey in October found 62 percent of respondents saying marijuana should be legal, including majorities of Democrats and independents.
A Gallup survey taken around the same time even found a majority of Republican respondents backing legal pot.
The new outlook on marijuana has become so widespread that the eventual Democratic nominee may not even be that far to the left of the man he or she will face in 2020.
Though President Trump has appointed marijuana hard-liners to some key posts, he has never expressed outright opposition to legalization.
Asked last year how he felt about Warren and Gardner’s bill to protect states that have legalized marijuana, Trump replied: “We’re looking at it. But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”