Although neither U.S. Representative Tim Bishop nor State Senator Lee Zeldin will be seen attending pot legalization rallies or sporting pro-hemp T-shirts this campaign season, the two candidates for New York’s 1st Congressional District have distinct views on the ever-evolving debate on marijuana and its legalization.
Mr. Bishop, a Democrat from Southampton who is seeking his seventh term in office this November, is decidedly in favor of legalizing the use of medical marijuana, while Mr. Zeldin, his Republican challenger who lives in Shirley, is skeptical of the medicinal properties of cannabis.
“The one thing that I know about elected officials at different levels of government is that we’re not qualified to be making these determinations,” Mr. Zeldin said during a recent interview. “These legislatures are not entirely filled up with doctors and other relevant experts to be studying and regulating the appropriate uses for medical marijuana.”
Between permitting medicinal uses of the plant and its various byproducts, outright decriminalization and no-holds-barred legalization, 37 states have relaxed their policy on pot either through legislation or voter referendums since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996. New York State joined this list earlier this summer when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act, despite the objection of 13 assemblymen and 10 senators—including Mr. Zeldin—who voted against the legislation.
“I do not believe that politicians in Albany should be acting like doctors in place of actual medical experts,” Mr. Zeldin said of his “no” vote in June.
Despite 22 states and the District of Columbia legalizing the use of medical marijuana, 11 states permitting access to marijuana byproducts and two other states decriminalizing it, the drug remains illegal federally, meaning the U.S. Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration could run roughshod over state policies and shut down dispensaries in Colorado, or arrest licensed growers in California at the drop of a hat.
Many politicians have written medical marijuana off as a states’ rights issue, citing the DEA’s allowance for “experiments” in Colorado and Washington State, both of which have legalized consumption of pot by adults 21 years or older, as examples of non-interventionism. But because the federal government can trump the states at any time, many have called for the federal decriminalization of marijuana in order to truly give states the choice on both medical and recreational marijuana policies. Those making such statements include the staff of The New York Times, which ran an editorial series earlier this summer calling for the legalization of the drug, equating marijuana laws to alcohol prohibition in the 20th century.
While Mr. Bishop has supported allowing states to control their own destiny with medical marijuana—he joined a coalition of Democrats and libertarian Republicans in passing an appropriations bill to cut funding for DEA raids on medical marijuana operations in May—he said that, as of now, he’s not willing to go as far as decriminalization.
“At the present time, I don’t support it, because I just think the downside risk of making marijuana readily available is substantial,” he said. “I’m continuing to educate myself on the issue, but I’m just, right now, reluctant to go that far.”
As for the appropriation bill that passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Mr. Bishop said he’s not holding his breath on it getting enough votes in the U.S. Senate.
Mr. Zeldin, meanwhile, said he won’t consider voting in favor medical marijuana unless the U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies it as a medicine and deems it safe for use by consumers. “I believe if marijuana truly is a medicine, it should be studied and regulated by the FDA,” he said.
Mr. Zeldin added that while he respects the right of states to make their own laws regarding marijuana, he feels the federal government should continue to hawkishly monitor the transport of all drugs across state and national borders.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Bishop views the issue of drug enforcement through a more liberal lens, while Mr. Zeldin would defer to the states. Mr. Bishop said incarceration should be replaced with rehabilitation and education for all drugs. Mr. Zeldin, in turn, thinks that individual states should set penalties and judges should craft punishments to fit crimes.
Polls show general support for the legalization of medical marijuana across the United States. A January poll from CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation shows that 88 percent support such a measure while a Fox News-sponsored poll from 2013 revealed that 85 percent of those asked are also in favor. A Public Religion Research Institute poll in 2013 found 80 percent favoring medical use.
Outright legalization remains a more divisive issue in America, with polls from ABC News/Washington Post, the Pew Research Center and CBS News showing a near even split.
Still, neither Mr. Zeldin nor Mr. Bishop have it listed among the major issues for this year’s campaign. The topic has remained off the political agenda for the 2014 campaign cycle for many politicians who feel the same as Mr. Zeldin’s spokeswoman, Jennifer DiSiena, who wrote in an email that marijuana isn’t “an issue the voters have been concerned with at any point over the course of the campaign.”