Legal Weed: How Republicans Learned to Love Marijuana

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Illustration by Alex Fine for Newsweek

Jason Isaac, a fourth-generation Texan and conservative state representative, has a clear memory of his first mind-­expanding encounter with marijuana.

It was January 2015, and the Texas state Capitol building was swarming with lawmakers returning to work. Two women were sitting on the stairwell opposite his office, waiting for him. He sat down with the pair—his constituents—and heard their stories. One had a child with intractable epilepsy, the other a child with severe autism.

Both said their young kids suffered uncontrollable seizures, hurting themselves and family members. Prescription medications had consistently failed to treat the symptoms. The moms were asking for the freedom to try something new. Cannabidiol (CBD)—a chemical compound in marijuana that does not make people high—is believed to alleviate seizures. But giving it to their children in any form would put the women on the wrong side of Texas law.

And raising the issue, Isaac knew, would put him on the wrong side of the Republican Party.

For decades, marijuana legalization was a nonstarter in Washington, and particularly in Republican politics. In a viewpoint still embodied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the party considered cannabis a dangerous gateway drug; it contributed to the degradation of Christian morals and ­needed to be controlled through strict policing. "Good people don't smoke marijuana," Sessions has said.

Just a few years ago, being a conservative lawmaker and wanting to talk about marijuana made you an outsider, and to support legalization was a kind of political suicide, seen as an abandonment of the Republican Party's deeply entrenched identification with traditional values and the war on drugs. And nowhere was that stigma more intense than in Texas.

But as state experimentation with legalization grew, media coverage of marijuana's supposed health benefits increased, and public opinion and demographics shifted, Republicans—some of whom had touted their hard-line stances as unalterable—began to soften.

In another case that moved Isaac, Child Protective Services investigated a father for giving his 17-year-old daughter marijuana vapor during violent seizures. A viral video showed the girl repeatedly punching herself in the face until her father administered the drug. She calmed down almost ­instantly. "Do you think he's a criminal?" Isaac asked his colleagues after presenting the video during a 2017 legislative session. "Because the state of Texas does."

Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, signed the Compassionate Use Act into law later that year. It allowed qualifying patients to have ­access to low-tetrahydrocannabinol cannabis. (THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.)

Then, at the state's 2018 Republican ­Party convention in San Antonio in June, nearly 10,000 conservative politicians voted to revise the ­party platform on marijuana. The changes included supporting industrial hemp, decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana possession and urging the federal government to reclassify cannabis from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 2 drug.

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A member of a 1969 Be-In at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

These planks, while still some of the most conservative approaches to marijuana policy in the country, were a marked departure from the party's position a few years prior. And they're indicative of the ­transformation happening with Republican voters and officials nationwide.

The motives are mixed. Some, like Isaac, were moved by arguments about its medical uses. For others, the shift is an attempt at criminal justice reform after years of racial discrimination. Some conservative lawmakers tout marijuana ­policy changes in the name of federalism and small government, and others say it might be the only bipartisan issue left in Congress. Regardless, Republicans can't deny that marijuana legal­ization is popular among younger, more diverse voters who could help the party survive.

A 'Culture Under Attack'

Republicans—especially Texans—have a long history of trying to eliminate marijuana. El Paso was the first city in the United States to ban the drug, approving a measure in 1914 strictly prohibiting the sale or possession of cannabis in any form. It was the state's panicked response to the flood of immigrants crossing the southern border, fleeing the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution, leafy plant in hand.

Soon, cannabis became a symbol of the fear of the Spanish-speaking newcomers. It wasn't long before politicians and newspapers began calling Mexican cannabis use a "marijuana menace." A New York Times article from July 1927 highlighted the supposed plight of a widowed mother who allegedly went mad from marijuana use, running under the headline "Mexican Family Go Insane."

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Phillip and Kevin Goldberg of Green Leaf Medical tour the flower room of their Maryland facility, which grows 31 strains of medical marijuana. Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post/Getty

The drug became federally defined as a Schedule 1 narcotic in the early 1970s, just as African-­Americans gained greater equality through the civil rights movement. Prosecutions of nonviolent drug offenses decimated black communities, and today nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison for drug offenses are black or Latino. Over 50 percent of all drug arrests in 2010 were marijuana-related.

Few issues move quickly in Washington, D.C., but experts and lawmakers generally agree that support for marijuana grew improbably fast: Since 2012, about 30 states have legalized marijuana in some form, and nine states have allowed recreational use. Residents of Washington state can have legal marijuana delivered to their front door as easily as a ­pizza for dinner. Pot shops now outnumber Starbucks stores in states such as Colorado and Oregon.

William Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, calls the sudden conservative change of heart on the drug a "tectonic shift." And he would know. Weld now serves on the board of a cannabis company alongside John Boehner, the former house speaker who famously said in 2009 that he was "unalterably opposed" to decriminalizing the drug.

In April, Boehner and Weld announced their new role in Acreage Holdings, a ­multimillion-dollar corporation involved in cultivating, processing and dispensing operations across 12 states—with plans to keep on expanding. The ­company touted the duo's "unmatched experience."

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Representative Jason Isaac. Illustration by Alex Fine for Newsweek

Weld was a natural fit. The former governor emerged as a lonely voice for marijuana policy change in 1991. He was so alone in his support of cannabis that national Republicans didn't even bother to react. It would be decades before the grassroots mobilization for legalization would seriously start to turn heads in conservative circles.

Boehner, on the other hand, spent his career in federal government as a formidable foe of marijuana. In 1999, he voted yes on prohibiting medical cannabis in Washington, D.C., and told constituents he was vehemently opposed to legalization of cannabis or any other Schedule 1 drug—a distinction marijuana shares with heroin and ecstasy. The Ohio congressman reiterated his resistance in the waning days of his tenure as speaker, in September 2015. In the four years that Boehner ran Congress, nearly a half a million people, mostly black and Latino, were arrested for selling marijuana.

Boehner tells Newsweek that during his tenure in the House he watched as state after state passed referendums approving the use of medical—or, in some cases, recreational—marijuana. Despite the spreading support, he says he never thought about doing anything at the federal level.

"But I kind of feel like I'm just like most of America, who found myself adamantly opposed years ago and over the years have begun to change my outlook," he says. He didn't think he would join the board at Acreage Holdings, but he says he changed his mind at the last minute because it's "the right thing to do." (Boehner also likely stands to make a decent profit from the venture as the marijuana market grows.)

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John Boehner. Illustration by Alex Fine for Newsweek

Ninety-four percent of Americans support medical marijuana, and two in every three adults say they believe that cannabis should be legalized for recreational adult use. Some recent polling shows over a 30 percent increase in marijuana favorability since 2000. Over 60 percent of Republican voters younger than 40 approve of decriminalizing marijuana use, though middle-aged conservatives are split down the middle on legalization, and the ­older generation opposes it by more than two to one.

One of the simplest reasons for public support of marijuana is that a lot of people use it. And those who don't almost always know someone who does—sometimes even their elected Republican politicians.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a ­conservative from California who championed his state's legalization effort, tells Newsweek he went through a two-year stint in his early 20s of smoking weed on a regular basis. (Not every single day, he quickly clarified, joking that he was much more of a "tequila man" than a pothead.) Rohrabacher says he hadn't touched the drug again until recently, when he used cannabidiol to ease the pain of a shoulder replacement.

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A medical grade marijuana display at an MMJ Dispensary in Denver. As of February, Colorado had the largest number of dispensaries in any state: 505 medical facilities and 520 recreational. Jon Paciaroni/Getty

Elected officials are quick to say the increase in support is a direct reflection of growing belief in its health benefits. For decades, ­Rohrabacher notes, the singular federal lab responsible for conducting marijuana research was at the University of Mississippi. Now, more clinical labs are slowly popping up around the country, testing things like how the drug treats pain and its effect on everyday tasks, like driving or using an iPad.

Pot advocates preach the drug's versatile uses. Adherents claim the plant can stimulate appetite, or serve as an anti-inflammatory, an analgesic or a bronchodilator. Some say they need it to fall asleep at night. Others even use it to cure problems as harmless as the hiccups. But many of the rumored health benefits haven't been scientifically tested, as the drug's illegal status makes research difficult.

Lawmakers who espouse the little-researched medical advantages, like Boehner and ­Rohrabacher, say Republicans need to "get out of the way" and allow the scientific experimentation to take place.

Even so, Rohrabacher's admission of using cannabidiol while in office was jarring. But the congressman says he has always believed that the conservative fight against the drug has never had anything to do with government or politics: It was a battleground of the culture wars.

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A woman at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Medical Marijuana is supported by 94 percent of Americans; two in every three adults say cannabis should be legalized for recreational adult use. Spencer Platt/Getty

"Frankly, I'm a Christian, and I lead a conservative lifestyle. I'm married, and I don't cheat on my wife, and we have three lovely children," Rohrabacher says, offering the defense anti-weed Republicans had been using for decades. The counterculture movement had alienated conservatives, and ­marijuana ended up caught in the crossfire of what the congressman calls the party's "irrational reaction."

It doesn't help, he adds, that Congress always reflects what the norms were a decade earlier. ­Today, it seems the government is catching up on a drug policy that Americans have wanted for years.

The 'Federalism Experiment'

Amid the flood of controversial comments from Donald Trump on the 2016 campaign trail, marijuana advocates were heartened by his seem­ingly open-minded position on cannabis. In an interview on a small radio program in Michigan, he said he supported medical marijuana. Any other policy platform, he added, should be left up to the states.

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Steps to a joint. deux/Getty

After four months in the Oval Office, Trump made his first statement as president about the issue of marijuana at the federal level. Desperate to get a $1.1 trillion spending bill passed, Trump approved a measure—created by ­Rohrabacher—that disallowed the Department of Justice from prosecuting medical marijuana businesses in states that legalized the drug. The rest of 2017 proved to be fruitful for the legal market, as sales hit nearly $10 billion—a 33 percent rise from 2016.

Only Sessions stood in the way. Rohrabacher says the attorney general has been nothing short of a "catastrophe"; others say Sessions's appointment was an obvious, immediate obstacle for any marijuana market. After all, Sessions once commented about the Ku Klux Klan, "I thought those guys were OK until I learned they smoked pot."

The former Alabama senator sent the industry into a tailspin when he announced that federal prosecutors could decide for ­themselves whether to press cases against pot growers, sellers or users for violating federal law.

Photo Illustration by C.J. Burton for Newsweek

The posture outraged leading lawmakers in states where residents had overwhelmingly voted to legalize the drug. Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, vowed to block the president's Department of Justice nominees until he received a commitment that his state's rights would not be infringed. Gardner tells Newsweek that in a sit-down meeting with the president in April, Trump said leaving cannabis laws up to the states was "the right thing to do and that we're not going back."

Gardner then went on to create the Strengthening the 10th Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, along with Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren. The bill would eliminate any federal prosecution of marijuana users or sellers in states that had legally ­authorized such actions. "We're looking at it. But I probably will end up supporting that, yes," Trump told reporters in June, striking a big blow to Sessions.

In a polarized era, the bill is impressively bipar­tisan. Five conservatives and four liberals co-­sponsored the legislation in the Senate, including names you would never expect to be on the same side—like Jeff Flake and Cory Booker. It has significant "cross-cut appeal," Gardner says. He hopes the bill will gain momentum after the midterm elections.

But for Republicans, the effort to ensure states' rights when it comes to marijuana policy is more important than a bipartisan collaboration. "It's a federalism experiment," Gardner says. "Republicans who have long been champions of states' rights can choose this as a moment to prove it."

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Illustration by Alex Fine for Newsweek

What he means is that conservatives can finally showcase the success of small government. Libertarians, Republicans and right-wing traditionalists hope the bottom-up nature of marijuana policy changes will pave the road for states to stand up on other issues. For conservative lawmakers not persuaded by the states' rights argument, there's always the ­reminder that legalizing the drug comes with the benefit of being able to place a tax on it. Colorado has already cashed in over $130 million in marijuana tax revenue during the first six months of 2018—most of it spent on improving the state's schools.

Gardner says chances like this don't present themselves very often. Even still, there are lawmakers in states like Missouri who continue to oppose bills with the word marijuana attached. Gardner remembers one senator saying to him, "Well, Cory, you might have potheads in your state, but I've got Baptists." Officials like that should look at the polls and "really get to know your voters," Gardner says.

How the Republican Party Will 'Survive and Thrive'

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President Donald Trump. Illustration by Alex Fine for Newsweek

The speedy growth of support for marijuana legalization among Republicans in the past few years—and particularly in the past few months—comes as the GOP gears up for a highly contested midterm election cycle.

The Democratic Party hopes November will help them regain some power in Washington and primary elections have shown promising results. To maintain their control, Republicans are willing to take all the help they can get. Boehner says he's "watching candidates take positions you would not have seen two years ago, four years ago, certainly not 10 years ago."

"It's politically advantageous right now to be a Republican supporting marijuana," says David Flaherty, a former Republican National Committee member and current Colorado political strategist.

The expanding public support for legal weed is its own type of lobbyist, exerting much of the same pressure on politicians. But the cannabis industry is no Big Pharma, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying efforts. It's not anywhere near as influential as the tobacco industry or on the same political playing field as the oil industry.

But experts say it could be one day. The emerging industry cashed in around $9 billion in sales last year. With the addition of recreational markets in California and other states, the sector could make as much as $11 billion in 2018 and $21 billion in 2021. As states like Michigan, Maryland and Rhode Island all strongly consider legislation—with some Republican support—to establish regulated adult-use markets, lawmakers want to get in on the ground floor.

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A sales associate at Good Meds, a medical cannabis center in Lakewood, Colorado. Sales reached $9 billion in the U.S. in 2017 and could climb to $21 billion in 2021 with the addition of recreational markets in California and other states. Matthew Staver/For The Washington Post/Getty

Already, politicians are beginning to see the benefits of supporting the cannabis industry through campaign fundraising. Rohrabacher, who is facing his toughest re-election campaign in three decades and is seen as one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House, has been rewarded for his pro-weed stance. The congressman has gained $5,000 checks from companies and organizations including Weedmaps, Scotts Miracle-Gro and the National Cannabis Industry Association. Since 2016, Rohrabacher has received more than $80,000 in marijuana industry money.

In the long run, Republican lawmakers may support marijuana decriminalization for the simple fact that it may help them get elected as they play a catch-up game with young, nonwhite voters. An estimated 24 million people ages 18 to 29 cast votes in the 2016 election. In that demographic, Donald Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by an 18-point margin. Millennials are about to inherit the kingdom as the largest voting block in the country, and, according to one poll, over 80 percent believe the drug is safer than alcohol.

Weld says the decriminalization of marijuana is also a "direct appeal to communities of color," as black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for weed-related offenses than their white counterparts. Think of cannabis as a political olive branch extended to diverse voters in an attempt to soften what many consider to be an unwelcoming party image. "If you want the Republican Party to survive and thrive over the next 50 years, we have to do things that appeal to other populations that aren't older, white and male," says GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser.

With Texas, as well as some of the nation's ­deepest-red states, like Utah and Oklahoma, moving forward with marijuana policy changes, all Republicans will have to pick a side on legalization, as well as affirming states' right to choose what works for them. "This is not something that is going to stop at the edges of Colorado or California," Gardner warns. "This is going to march across the country. It's an opportunity for Republicans to practice what they preach."