Republican presidential hopefuls are united in blasting President Obama for his chaotic enforcement of marijuana laws, but the unity quickly breaks down when they are asked how they would handle things if they were in the White House.
Some have sent mixed signals, saying state decisions should be respected while questioning how Mr. Obama has respected those decisions. Others have refused to say how they would wield the federal bureaucracy against marijuana.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is one of the few potential candidates to take a firm stance, saying he would insist on following federal statutes that outlaw the drug.
“I don’t think you can ignore federal law,” Mr. Jindal told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, who asked whether the governor would “bring the hammer” down on pot stores in states with legalization laws. “Federal law is still the law of the land. It still needs to be enforced.”
The confusion stems from the conflict between federal law, which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug on par with heroin and LSD, and states where pot has been legalized for medicinal use or, in a growing number of states, where it has been approved for recreational use.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Alaska, Oregon and the District also have followed in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington by allowing recreational use of the drug. Several other states, such as California, Maine, Arizona and Nevada, which hosts an early presidential nomination contest, are heading in a similar direction.
Mr. Obama and Congress have tried to grapple with the issue. Capitol Hill took a first step toward leniency last year by passing a spending bill prohibiting federal agents from targeting medical marijuana dispensaries for raids, though the criminal laws remain on the books.
The Obama administration has issued several memos laying out drug enforcement priorities that order agents to generally ignore states that are trying to legalize marijuana, saying federal law enforcement should focus on eight specific areas such as stopping the distribution of the drug to minors and fighting gangs and cartels that try to traffic in pot.
The president has said his actions on marijuana enforcement are similar to those he took on Obamacare and immigration, in which he claimed use of prosecutorial discretion to grant temporary amnesty to lawbreakers.
The administration’s moves have drawn fire from Republicans who want to succeed Mr. Obama.
Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who announced his candidacy last month, has said it is the prerogative and right of states such as Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana.
But the conservative firebrand also has accused Mr. Obama of setting a dangerous precedent by curtailing enforcement of federal laws in those states.
“Anyone who is concerned about liberty should be concerned about the notion that this president, over and over again, has asserted the right to pick and choose what laws to follow. That is fundamentally dangerous to the liberty of the people,” Mr. Cruz said last year in an interview with Reason, a libertarian magazine. “What rule of law means is that we are a nation of laws, not of men, that no man is above the law — especially not the president.”
A spokesman for Mr. Cruz did not respond to a request seeking clarification on his stance, nor did representatives for former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
A representative for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declined to comment.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the pro-legalization group NORML, said he suspects the Republican candidates are trapped between their own beliefs and those of primary voters.
“These candidates no doubt understand that the majority of Americans support regulatory alternatives to prohibition and are trying to appeal to them while, at that same time, trying to avoid agitating their more socially conservative base,” Mr. Armentano said. “Knowing that marijuana legalization outpolled both presidential candidates in 2012, these GOP hopefuls arguably ought to be more concerned with positioning themselves to be on the right side of history rather than on trying to appease a vocal minority that is woefully out of touch with both changing public and scientific opinion.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush acknowledged in an interview last year that he is torn on the issue.
“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,” Mr. Bush told the Miami Herald. “But having said that, 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.”
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said her boss “believes this is a decision for the states.” Asked to clarify how Mr. Perry would use federal powers if he becomes president, Ms. Nashed gave the same answer.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida suggested he would use discretion in enforcing the law.
“Sen. Rubio believes legalization of marijuana for recreational use is a bad idea,” said Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon. “Of course, states can make decisions about what laws they wish to apply within their own borders, but the federal government has its own interests to vigorously prosecute trafficking in illegal drugs, including marijuana.”
AshLee Strong, press secretary for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Our American Revival political action committee, said: “There are currently federal laws on the books that must be enforced, but ultimately he believes the best place to handle this issue is in the states.”
Sen. Rand Paul has been the most outspoken supporter of legalization among the potential presidential field, calling for reduced penalties for marijuana offenses and taking a lead role in a bipartisan push to lift federal restrictions on medical marijuana.
The Kentucky Republican has cast Mr. Bush as a hypocrite for admitting marijuana use while a student but opposing a medical marijuana ballot initiative last year in Florida, which failed to pass.