New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will make a decision in the next 24 hours on a sticky medical marijuana issue that could reverberate in the 2016 Republican presidential race.
A bill to expand medicinal cannabis for children with chronic illnesses has been sitting on Christie’s desk for nearly two months. Proponents of the legislation crashed a Christie event this week to pressure him to sign it, and the Republican leader vowed to make a final decision by Friday.
“These are complicated issues,” Christie told an activist who said the measure is needed to save his daughter's life. “Listen, I know you think it’s simple. It’s simple for you. It’s not simple for me. I’ve read everything that you have put in front of me and I’ll have a decision by Friday. I wish the best for you, your daughter and your family and I’m going to do what I think is best for the people of the state, all the people of the state.”
The marijuana issue is a dicey one for Christie, a prime contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. It’s the latest tough social issue he’s confronted as the Republican leader of a blue state, where the legislature has also forced him to weigh in on gay marriage.
Christie’s dilemma is made even more complicated by his on-going spat with Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and fellow 2016 hopeful who has taken a softer stance on pot than many within the party.
While Paul has at times called marijuana a dangerous drug, he has also given lip service to efforts to decriminalize it. It’s a debate Congress is gearing up for this fall after Attorney General Eric Holder announced federal law enforcement agencies would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with crimes that can lead to mandatory minimum sentences.
“We should tell young people, ‘I’m not in favor of you smoking pot, but if you get caught smoking pot, I don’t want to put you in jail for 20 years,’” Paul said last November soon after the presidential election.
Paul and Christe are already in a war of words after the New Jersey governor took shots at libertarians in Congress who put privacy concerns over national security. Earlier this week, Paul said Christie’s comments would alienate young conservatives who care about privacy issues more than fiscal policies.
On both privacy and marijuana, Paul is more closely aligned to younger voters. In a June Pew Research Center for People and the Press poll, 55 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds disapproved of the government collecting telephone and Internet data to fight terrorism and 52 percent said it hasn’t helped prevent future attacks on the U.S. Every other age group took the opposite position or was divided.
When it comes to pot, 50 percent of Baby Boomers believe it should be legal, joining 65 percent of Millennials and 54 percent from Generation x, according to another Pew poll. Even 60 percent of 65-year-olds believe marijuana has legitimate medical uses.
But a 2016 Republican primary battle would not just include Paul, but other Republican lawmakers and governors who still see marijuana as a dangerous gateway drug. If he backs medical marijuana, Christie faces a potential backlash from conservatives.
In the past, Christie has said he supports the concept of medical marijuana but not New Jersey’s law allowing its use. He has used his administrative powers to make the implementation of the 2009 act more difficult. He also vetoed the Democratic-led legislature’s effort to decriminalize marijuana for everyone.
Proponents of the medical marijuana bill who confronted Christie Wednesday told him it was a “very simple issue.”
Christie scoffed at that notion.
“These are complicated issues,” Christie said. “I know you think it’s simple and it’s not.”