HOMESTEAD — Former Gov. Jeb Bush opposes Florida's medical-marijuana initiative, but the potential GOP presidential candidate said he's not sure if the federal government should enforce federal cannabis laws if the Sunshine State proposal passes.
Bush's struggle with the state-federal split over medical marijuana reflects a broader struggle in the national Republican Party, where anti-drug hardliners are at odds with states-rights conservatives and libertarians over the issue.
Though a top Republican and frequent critic of President Obama, Bush refrained from repudiating the current White House's position to de-emphasize enforcement of certain marijuana laws in the 20 states that have legalized medical cannabis, plus Washington, D.C., and the two states that have completely legalized adult personal use of the drug, Colorado and Washington.
Asked Friday about the federal government's role in prosecuting pot laws in medical-marijuana states, Bush said he'd have to give it more thought.
"In medical marijuana states? I don't know. I'd have to sort that out," Bush said. "I think that states ought to have a right to decide these things. I think the federal government's role in our lives is way too-overreaching."
"But having said that," he continued, "if you're in Colorado and you can purchase marijuana openly, should people in Wyoming not be concerned about that? And I think there, maybe, the federal law needs to be looked at — interstate commerce."
Bush made his comments in response to a reporter's questions during a Homestead campaign stop for Gov. Rick Scott's re-election. The day before, Bush issued a written statement urging Floridians to vote against the proposed constitutional amendment for medical marijuana.
The amendment would allow physicians to recommend medical marijuana to people with "debilitating" medical conditions. Opponents say the measure is too broad; supporters say it's designed to ensure that sick people get the care they need.
As a likely frontrunner for his party's presidential nomination in 2016, Bush's thoughts about marijuana have an added layer of significance because, if elected, his administration would have to decide whether it should continue the Obama policy in marijuana-decriminalization states.
"I think Jeb Bush is thinking about 2016 politics," said Ben Pollara, director for the United for Care group that fought to get the medical-marijuana initiative, a proposed constitutional amendment, on the Florida ballot in November.
Pollara pointed out that many of the big names who might run for president have nuanced views on medical marijuana.
"Rand Paul is more libertarian. Rick Perry has come out in favor of decriminalization. Chris Christie administers a medical-marijuana system in New Jersey," Pollara said. "This is part of the more-libertarian strain. Jeb has presidential considerations to worry about."
Bush on Thursday issued a statement that urged Florida voters to oppose the amendment that seeks to legalize medical marijuana for people with debilitating medical conditions.
Another potential GOP candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also opposes the proposed constitutional amendment but said he supported low-THC medical marijuana therapy, which was called for in a bill that the Legislature passed this year and that Scott signed unexpectedly.
The Legislature only took up that measure this year when the United for Care amendment was bound for the Florida ballot, where its chances of passage are good.
Bush said Friday he would decide whether he'd run after the 2014 elections, but the former governor admitted he liked stumping. "I kind of miss being out on the campaign trail," he said.
Bush indicated he'd spend his time stumping for candidates like Scott. He's also familiar with fighting constitutional amendments, having spent considerable political capital in 2002 opposing an initiative that reduced class sizes. It barely passed.
The medical marijuana constitutional amendment looks incredibly popular right now.
Polls indicate that about 70 percent of voters back the proposed ballot language. It takes 60 percent voter approval to pass a constitutional amendment in Florida.
Support spans all demographic and partisan lines, but support is strongest among Democrats, including fundraiser and trial lawyer John Morgan, who employs Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner Charlie Crist and helped spearhead the United for Care initiative.
Organized opponents tend to be Republicans, including Mel Sembler, a former ambassador appointed by both Bush presidents, the father and brother of Jeb Bush.
Unlike Bush, Scott wouldn't say whether he believes Florida voters should oppose the amendment. Instead, Scott said, he opposed the amendment for personal reasons.
"I understand the importance of making sure that people who have debilitating diseases have access to the health care they want," Scott said.
"It's going to be on the ballot. Everybody's going to have the same vote I have. But I'm not going to support it because I think it's bad for our families.