WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidate Hermain Cain on Tuesday said the regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries should be left to the states.
"If states want to legalize medical marijuana, I think that's a state's right," said Cain, according to NBC News' Andrew Rafferty. "Because one of my overriding approaches to looking at all of these issues -- most of them belong at the state, because when you do something federally ... you try to force one-size-fits-all."
Cain's comments, which came at a campaign stop in Urbandale, Iowa, mark the first time that Cain has taken a position on the legalization of cannabis. At the 2011 Ames Straw Poll in August, Cain dodged questions regarding medical marijuana, simply walking away when pressed on the issue.
WATCH: (Story continues below video)
Republican presidential candidate Gary Johnson has already come out in favor of legalizing marijuana, telling HuffPost in a recent interview that it's only a matter of time before marijuana is legalized.
In an interview with Outside Magazine, he called pot smokers "the largest untapped voting bloc in the country," pointing to recent polling showing a plurality of Americans support its legalization.
According to a recently released Gallup poll, 50 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. That number, up from just 36 percent in 2006, marks a record high.
Support for legalization is as high as 62 percent among Americans under the age of 30, and Gallup has found that Americans are especially likely to favor legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. A full 70 percent favored making it legal for doctors to prescribe marijuana to reduce pain and suffering, according to a Gallup survey last year. One WashPost/ABC News poll found support for legalizing medical marijuana to be as high as 81 percent.
Those numbers, advocates have argued, could have significant implications for candidates on the campaign trail. And Cain's shift from silence to vocal support for letting states establish their own medical marijuana laws could be a sign that the polls are indeed exerting an influence on the candidates.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has advocated a states' rights approach to medical marijuana, while Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has called for an end to the war on drugs, insisting, like a growing number of presidential candidates, that marijuana laws should be set by the states. Last summer Paul even teamed up with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to introduce federal legislation that removes marijuana from the list of federally regulated substances, despite the bill being essentially dead upon arrival.
"The fact that mainstream presidential candidates like Herman Cain and Rick Perry are saying that their administrations would respect states' rights to implement medical marijuana laws shows just how far this debate has come," said Tom Angell, spokesman for the legalization advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, in an email to HuffPost on Wednesday. "Support for reforming our marijuana laws is no longer considered a third rail of politics -- if it ever was one -- and politicians are increasingly realizing that it is a good move to align themselves with the 80 percent of the public that supports medical marijuana. On the other hand, let's remember that candidates Bush and Obama both made similar statements while campaigning, and look where that got us. We still need to bridge the disconnect between popular sentiment and public policy when it comes to medical marijuana."
Republican presidential candidates may have an opportunity to exploit pot advocates' anger at President Barack Obama, who as a candidate promised to maintain a hands-off approach toward pot clinics that adhere to state law. When he campaigned at a town hall in Nashua, N.H., in 2007, Obama said the Justice Department's prosecution medical marijuana users was "not a good use of our resources." Yet the number of Justice Department raids on marijuana dispensaries has continued to rise.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana, even as the federal government enforces federal laws that may contradict or supersede those local provisions, setting the stage for conflict and confusion between state and federal authorities. The friction is particularly evident in California, where federal prosecutors have targeted medical marijuana dispensary owners operating in full compliance with state laws. Medical marijuana advocates, in turn, are suing the federal government, claiming that the Department of Justice has overstepped its constitutional authority.