New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) holds a town hall meeting at the American Legion Dupuis Cross Post 15 July 2, 2015 in Ashland, New Hampshire.
Darren McCollester—2015 Getty Images
By Tessa Berenson
July 29, 2015

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie threatened users of marijuana who have been buying the drug legally under state law on Tuesday. “If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it,” he said, according to Bloomberg. “As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws.”

The blunt language ran against the tide of national public opinion, distinguished him from most of his colleagues in the Republican field, and could present problems in key states like Colorado and New Hampshire, where majorities support marijuana legalization. But pollsters say the straight talk might also offer him political upside, by appealing to conservative voters and separating him from his rivals.

An April Pew poll found that 53% of the country now supports marijuana legalization, including 39% of Republicans. On the question of whether the federal government should override state law to bust pot users, 59% of Americans, including 54% of self-identified Republicans, oppose the federal enforcement in states like Colorado.

In Colorado, a crucial 2016 swing state, the numbers are slightly more favorable for legal pot. According to a recent Quinnipiac University Poll, 62% of Colorado voters support recreational marijuana legalization. A poll done for the Denver Post shows how the supporters break down by political party: 66% of Democrats and 62% of Independents said they would vote to legalize marijuana in the state if the ballot came up again, while only 26% of Republicans said they would.

Christie’s tough stance could cut both ways in the primary and general campaign. “You can safely say in Colorado the decision to legalize marijuana is popular,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “And when you walk in with a broad stroke saying I’m going to take this away, it could negatively affect Chris Christie.”

But Malloy said there’s a potential benefit to Christie’s strong stance, as well. Of the 16 Republican candidates, few others openly share Christie’s support of federal enforcement, though Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and South Caolina Sen. Lindsay Graham have tiptoed around it. Most candidates, from Florida Governor Jeb Bush to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, instead say they would leave the question of routine marijuana enforcement up to the states. Their views are summed-up by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who said, “I think Colorado voters made a choice. I don’t support their choice, but I do support their right to make that choice.”

So Malloy thinks that even if many voters disagree with Christie, his resolute stance on the issue makes him stand out from the rest of the field. “It’s certainly a bold, against the tide claim for Chris Christie,” Malloy said. “When you’re one of 16 and your star is not rising as it was a few years ago, what appears as a principled move could work in your favor.”

Christie has always been opposed to marijuana legalization, both politically and personally: “Never have. It wasn’t my thing,” he said of using the drug on a recent campaign swing.

Andrew Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire, agreed with Malloy. “What all these guys need to do is separate themselves from the field,” he said. “Part of the way you do that is to distinguish yourself from the other candidates.”

Plus, according to Smith, there’s less of a political downside to being anti-pot in New Hampshire than there is in Colorado. “It’s not a major issue here,” he said, although a recent UNH poll showed 60% of New Hampshire voters support legalization, and 72% support decriminalization. “The libertarian voters, the voters in the Republican Party who are most likely to be proponents of marijuana legalization, first off they’re going to be less likely to vote… and if they are Republicans, they’re probably going to be more the libertarian Rand Paul supporters… There are enough older more conservative republicans, culturally conservative, that would support [Christie] on that.”

Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.berenson@time.com.

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