In a political duopoly, such as there is in the U.S. between Democrats and Republicans—the former “liberal,” the latter “conservative”—it takes two parties to tango.
Since at least 2005, Democratic voters have increasingly supported ending or, at minimum, lessening cannabis prohibition. Democrats generally “get it”; Republicans generally don’t. Since President Richard Nixon, elected on a “law and order” platform in 1968, declared “war on drugs,” Republican voters, elected officials and policymakers have largely opposed any reforms of cannabis laws. In many cases, they’ve sought increased enforcement and harsher penalties, with young blacks and Latinos often the target.
With this in mind, you’d be surprised to learn how many genuine political conservatives have opposed marijuana prohibition over the last 45 years. In 1972, William F. Buckley’s National Review published a cover story by Young Americans for Freedom cofounder Richard Cowan titled, “Why Conservatives Should Support Marijuana Law Reform.” The magazine’s cover line read, “The Time Has Come to Abolish the Pot Laws.” Buckley, who had smoked marijuana, agreed with Cowan.
This was the first major intellectual discussion in conservative ranks about whether state and federal governments should amend their Reefer Madness-era laws. The call by Buckley, YAF and Cowan (who went on to cofound Freedom Leaf) for conservatives to champion, not oppose, cannabis-law reforms would eventually expose a far larger rift on the right.
In the 1970s and ’80s, notably after the election of Ronald “Just Say No” Reagan in 1980, the moralist wing of the Republican party, led by Bible-thumpers and abortion opponents, clearly came to the fore over their more libertarian-leaning brethren. GOP moralists equated marijuana use with moral turpitude, lack of productivity and social deviancy. John Walters, who would go on to become President George W. Bush’s drug czar, declared that the drug war of 1977-92 was “a conservative cultural revolution.”
During this period, however, libertarian-conservative writers consistently questioned the absurdity, costs and immorality of cannabis prohibition far more than traditional liberal newspapers and magazines did. Conservative intellectuals such as Buckley, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams and Milton Friedman, as well as George Shultz, the Reagan administration’s Secretary of State, all railed against prohibition in print. In fact, Buckley was the first well-known conservative to “recommend the legalization of the sale of most drugs, except to minors.”
Conservative, libertarian and center-right newspapers such as the Orange County Register, the Washington Times and the Chicago Tribune, along with magazines like Reason, National Review and The Economist, joined the outcry against continuing the War on Marijuana and other illicit drugs, as did think tanks including the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institute, the Heartland Institute and the Mackinac Center.
When businessman Gary Johnson was elected governor of New Mexico in 1994, libertarian-conservatives had their man in office. After two terms, during which he openly supported marijuana legalization, Johnson ran for president twice as the Libertarian Party’s candidate. In the 2016 election, the Johnson/William Weld ticket garnered nearly 4.5 million votes, 3.3% of the total.
The same Nov. 8 vote elected Donald Trump as President. Neither an ideological conservative nor a lifelong Republican, Trump’s a self-aggrandizing opportunist who often takes wildly contradictory positions, largely unbound by either a political philosophy or party loyalty. Cannabis is no exception. Trump told a campaign crowd in 2015 that he thinks “marijuana and legalization… should be a state issue.” But he’s also celebrated police brutality, telling police on Long Island July 28 that they shouldn’t “be too nice” when throwing suspects into a paddy wagon. What we do know is that his clearest action on the issue has been nominating former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, a long-time cannabis foe, as Attorney General, the nation’s top law-enforcement official.
So far, the Justice Department, which includes the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Marshals, has largely not interfered with the thousands of licensed cannabis businesses in the eight states that have legal marijuana and the 22 others that allow medical access. While the Justice Department is studying revamping its marijuana-law enforcement policies, and Sessions in May told federal prosecutors to seek “the most serious” charges against low-level drug offenders, he has not yet rescinded the 2013 “Cole Memo,” which recommended that prosecutors should not use their finite resources to go after cannabis businesses that are complying with state laws.
Could this be due to the influence of some of Trump’s significant advisors?
• Donor and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has a large financial stake in the cannabis companies owned by Seattle-based Privateer Holdings
• Political consultant Roger Stone, a longtime Republican political operative (and dirty-tricks specialist) came out of his smoky closet a few years ago and admitted he enjoys cannabis. He and former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura recently launched a political-action group called the United States Cannabis Coalition. Similar to many pro-pot Trump supporters, Stone contends that “Donald Trump’s skepticism about the War on Drugs goes back many years.”
Like Trump (but for different reasons), Stone has been taking aim at Sessions recently, calling him “shifty” and “nefarious.” “A crackdown on marijuana is not going to make America great again economically,” he wrote on July 30 at Stone ColdTruth.com. “Sessions’ plan directly contradicts the expressed position of the president while a candidate… Even more appalling, drug warriors like Sessions, John Kelly and Chris Christie refuse to admit that the War on Drugs has failed… The effects of legalization, on the other hand, have proven to be most beneficial.”
Who knows? Without Thiel and Stone peeping in the president’s ear, it’s distinctly possible that the Trump administration would have already started a sustained campaign against America’s state-sanctioned cannabis industry.
Other current conservative Trump backers who support cannabis-law reforms include GOP mega-donors the Koch Brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, National Review editor Richard Lowry and former MTV VJ Kennedy.
The goal for drug-law-reform activists and cannabis businesspeople working to bring federal prohibition to a quick end is to flip Republicans from anti-weed to pro-pot by making them adhere to traditional GOP rhetoric about states’ rights, economic freedom and good social order (which prohibition does not at all engender).
Republican support for reefer reform is essential, since there’s a yawning gap between Democrats, of whom nearly 60% support legalization, and Republicans, of whom only 35% do. (Democrats’ level of support comports almost exactly with the general population’s.)
Thankfully, there are some forward-thinking individuals and organizations that have recognized this crucial need. One is Ann Lee, the 90-year-old mother of Richard Lee, the visionary founder of Oaksterdam (and its university). She formed Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition in 2010 with a singular focus on educating and cajoling Republicans to live up to their rhetoric of respect for the Constitution by no longer supporting the failed policy of cannabis prohibition.
It would also be politically prudent for advocacy groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and Americans for Safe Access (ASA) to make effective efforts to reach the Republican party and its voters at the local, state and federal levels.
Unless Democrats take control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress—which has only occurred twice since 1981, in 1993-94 and 2009-2010—federal cannabis prohibition will likely drag on for at least another decade, until the time that Republicans’ opposition to it falls in line with the rest of the nation.
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