Is pot the new gay marriage for the GOP? – By JONATHAN TOPAZ 1/31/15 9:06 AM EST

Republicans struggle to find their footing on an issue that resonates with younger voters.

FILE - In this May 13, 2009 file photo, marijuana grown for medical purposes is shown inside a greenhouse at a farm in Potter Valley, Calif in Mendocino County. A federal grand jury has issued a subpoena for records associated with Mendocino County’s now-suspended medical marijuana permitting program in what appears to be another step in the federal crackdown on the state’s medical marijuana industry. County officials say it’s not clear why the U.S. Attorney’s Office wants the records. They have declined to say what records were specifically requested. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Marijuana is shaping up to be the new gay marriage of GOP politics — most Republicans would rather not talk about it, except to punt to the states.

But when it comes to the 2016 presidential race, a series of legalization ballot initiatives — and a certain outspoken Kentucky senator — could make it harder for the Republican field to avoid the conversation.

When asked to articulate their positions on recreational marijuana, several potential GOP 2016 candidates have tried to strike a tricky balance: stress the downsides of pot use and the upsides of states’ rights. Some have indicated their openness to decriminalizing pot, at least in their state, but none favors outright legalization.

For instance, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who took steps toward decriminalizing pot in his state, declared last year: “I am a staunch promoter of the 10th Amendment. States should be able to set their own policies on abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, meanwhile, “believes legalization of marijuana for recreational use is a bad idea, and that the states that are doing it may well come to regret it,” said Alex Conant, his spokesman. “Of course, states can make decisions about what laws they wish to apply within their own borders.”

Marijuana may not stimulate the same kind of passion as the debate over same-sex marriage. Still, a majority of Americans support legalizing pot, and young people — who tend to turn out more for presidential elections than midterms — are especially keen on it.

The “leave it to the states” stance allows potential GOP candidates to stake out a relatively safe middle ground between an older conservative base that disapproves of marijuana use and a general-election electorate and libertarian wing that prefers legalization. The states’ rights approach also allows GOP candidates to express some openness to medical marijuana and criminal justice reform and argue against devoting costly resources for federal enforcement.

It’s also a position many in the prospective GOP field have taken on same-sex marriage.

Perry and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush both argued for the rights of states to set their own marriage policies after courts overturned bans in Texas and Florida. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Rubio, among others, have also said marriage should be left up to the states. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has called for a constitutional amendment to disallow the federal government or courts to nullify state marriage laws, saying: “our Constitution leaves it to the states to define marriage.”

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