Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Jeb Bush’s own youthful marijuana use should make him rethink stances

Jeb Bush, pictured in his 1971 class yearbook, his senior year at Andover.
Jeb Bush, pictured in his 1971 class yearbook, his senior year at Andover.

So Jeb Bushsmoked marijuana at prep school back in the late 1960s, as Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” blasted in the background? That’s cool.

What’s not cool, according to Senator Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, is Bush’s current attitude towards cannabis. “This is a guy who now admits he smoked marijuana, but he wants to put people in jail who do,” Paul told The Hill newspaper. “I think that the real hypocrisy is . . . people on our side who made mistakes growing up, admit their mistakes, but now still want to put people in jail for that.” Paul went on to tell Sean Hannity, “It’s hypocritical for very wealthy white people who have all the resources to evade the drug laws” to favor strict prison sentences for those who are less fortunate.

Paul makes some good points — including the unspoken one, that he sees marijuana policy as a legitimate campaign issue for 2016, particularly in the search for younger voters.

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Now, Paul has never explicitly said whether he smoked weed or not, only that he “made mistakes” — not exactly an ode to coolness or political courage. But Paul believes in lowering minimum sentencing guidelines for possession or sale of marijuana and agrees that the war on drugs “has had a racial outcome.” He doesn’t believe in legalizing marijuana, but he does not want to incarcerate people for extended periods of time for using it. He also supports legalizing medical marijuana.

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Bush, on the other hand, supported mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses as governor of Florida and opposed a Florida ballot question in 2014 to make medical marijuana legal, saying it would hurt the state’s “family-friendly” reputation.

Times certainly have certainly changed since Bill Clinton’s iconic “I didn’t inhale” response. Today’s candidates aren’t just asked whether they smoked pot — but how far they lean towards making a joint as accessible as a margarita.

“It’s absolutely a hot topic (in presidential politics),” said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization advocacy group. “It stretches across a number of issue areas — social justice, criminal justice, economic and national security, federalism and state’s rights.”

According to a November 2014 Gallup poll, 51 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana, although support varies by age and region. Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states, including Massachusetts. Four states — Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, and Alaska — have gone one step farther and legalized its recreational use, as has Washington, D.C. According to Tvert, a marijuana legalization question could appear on at least five state ballots in 2016, including Massachusetts.

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While society’s attitudes are evolving, politicians are still trying to find the safe middle ground.

Although Washington D.C. voters passed a ballot question last November to legalize possession of up to two ounces of recreational marijuana for personal use, the matter is still unsettled there. Congress in December passed a spending bill that barred D.C. from using public funds to enact the law. Obama, on the other hand, included a provision in his federal budget proposal that would allow the marijuana legalization law to move forward by permitting the city to use its own funds.

“The president supports the principle of home rule, and he believes that Congress should not interfere with local decisions by the citizens of the District of Columbia about how they should be governed,” a White House official told Politico.

Of course, Obama was the real game-changer in presidential politics when it came to inserting honesty into the discussion of drug use. In his 1995 memoir, “Dreams of My Father,” he acknowledged that he used drugs while growing up in Hawaii. During the 2012 campaign, “Barack Obama: The Story” — a book by David Maraniss — revealed more about those days when Obama hung with high school friends who called themselves the “Choom Gang.”

Honesty is important, but where you take it as an elected official is what counts.

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As Bush, now 61, told the Globe, “I drank alcohol and I smoked marijuana when I was at Andover. It was pretty common.” All these years later, few would hold that against him. It’s certainly not an obstacle to a presidential run.

But if his youthful indiscretion is a crime for someone else, Paul is right. That’s hypocrisy.

Related:

Jeb Bush shaped by troubled Phillips Academy years

Scot Lehigh: Bush candidacy spells a contentious GOP race

Tom Keane: Bush should have Democrats worried

Jeff Jacoby: A Clinton vs. Bush race? Again?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.