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Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli should take a less ambiguous stand on marijuana legalization

Earlier this month, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican candidate for governor, spoke in an introductory politics class at the University. After describing his job as attorney general, Cuccinelli allowed students to ask questions. The students inquired on a wide range of subjects — including marijuana legalization. Cuccinelli’s somewhat ambiguous stance no doubt came as a pleasant surprise to many students, but it was far less appealing to some of Cuccinelli’s more conservative supporters.

Cuccinelli told the students he was uncertain of Virginia’s future when it comes to legalizing marijuana, adding that he “and a lot of people are watching Colorado and Washington to see how it plays out.” He said his views on the subject were “evolving.” This more libertarian approach is appealing to some, but Cuccinelli has received heat from some conservatives for his vague remarks. Last week, he clarified his stance to a crowd of Republicans in Albemarle County, saying he is not ready to legalize marijuana but is considering the moves in Colorado and Washington to be “federalism experiments.” He then called for Republicans to “pivot back to principles” rather than move toward the center, as some have suggested following the GOP’s defeat in the general election.

An even better political move for Cuccinelli, instead of just appealing to students or re-appealing to reliable conservatives after the fact, would be to articulate a clear stance on marijuana, regardless of the crowd in front of him. The issue of marijuana legalization is going to stick around. It is a topic that will likely see many changes, at least at the state level, in the next few years, which makes it important that voters know where Cuccinelli and other candidates stand.

I have great respect for many of Cuccinelli’s views on limiting the role of government, and his comments on the importance of federalism reflect some of those qualities. But I get a sense that he is himself failing to “pivot back to principles” and is instead opting for a middle-of-the-road approach to stay competitive. This centrist approach would betray the solid principles for which one looks to politicians like Cuccinelli, and it may not even be the best political decision.

While the students at the University may have been thrilled to hear some equivocation on recreational marijuana, they are not necessarily representative of the state as a whole. According to a recent study by the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws, while a vast majority of Virginia residents would support legalizing medical marijuana, a slight majority of the state is in opposition to legalizing the drug outright.

Again, Cuccinelli is an exciting conservative and a worthy Republican to take over Gov. Bob McDonnell’s seat. I admire what he has done as attorney general and could hope for no one better to serve as governor for my last two years at the University. Winning the election will be a challenge, however, as Virginia has proved itself blue in the general election, and victory will have to come through motivating the party base — the older folks, Christians and the many military men and women of the state — to get out, campaign and vote. Equivocation may excite a room full of college students for an afternoon, but the backtracking and explanations only serves to weaken Cuccinelli’s image. Cuccinelli needs to take his own words to heart and return to his principles, because those very principles have gotten him where he is and have garnered him the support of many who are excited for his gubernatorial bid.

Sam Novack’s column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at