The Conservative Case for Legalizing Pot

Photos: The Most Marijuana-Friendly Nations Tony Avelar

Ann Lee, a Texas Republican and devout Catholic, thought marijuana was the "weed of the devil." Like so many Americans, Lee believed pot was a dangerous "gateway" drug that tempted the unwary into a dissolute existence. But when Lee's son, Richard, suffered a severe spinal injury two decades ago and became paralyzed from the waist down, she was given a crash course in the devil drug. "I had to open my eyes, and I also had to pray a lot and believe in Richard's integrity," says Lee, now 81. "When I saw the good it did for Richard's spasticity, I said, 'Well, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.'?" Since then, Lee and her husband have been steadfast in their support of Richard as he opened a California medical-marijuana dispensary and founded a trade school in Oakland devoted to the study of pot, aptly named Oaksterdam University. Today Richard, 47 and a millionaire thanks to his pot business, is leading the charge for passage of Proposition 19, the controversial California ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana for personal use. And Mom and Dad, now avid Tea Partiers, are manning the phones in support of their son and his efforts.

You'd expect aging flower children to fight for the right to get high. But aging conservatives? As the ideals of the Tea Party's most vocal libertarians infiltrate the Republican ranks, and state and federal officials slash budgets even as they pump cash into an expensive war on drugs, some conservatives are making the case for legalizing marijuana. It isn't Nancy Pelosi who's speaking out in favor of legalized pot—she's been careful not to take a position on Prop 19—but rather her Republican challenger in California, John Dennis. And in Massachusetts, Barney Frank's Tea Party–backed Republican opponent, Sean Bielat, has said he leans libertarian on the issue, and it hasn't hurt his race against the longtime congressman, who strongly supports decriminalization of pot. "As you see the liberty wing of the Republican Party grow, you'll see more support for legalization," says Dennis, who drew cheers during a campaign stop recently at the International Cannabis and Hemp Expo in San Francisco, where his staff altered his campaign sign to sport Rastafarian colors and a pot leaf. Republican power broker Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, points out that legalization can make sense from a conservative perspective because it touches on issues of national security and fiscal prudence. "First, there is the mess that is Mexico. Narcoterrorism is made possible by our drug prohibition in the U.S. Then there is the cost of incarceration," he says. Gary Johnson, the Republican former governor of New Mexico and a putative presidential candidate for 2012, says he believes that "Proposition 19 has the opportunity to be the domino that could bring about rational drug policy nationwide."

Pundits like Fox News's Glenn Beck and former judge Andrew Napolitano have also joined in the debate, on the pro-legalization side. "You know what, I think it's about time we legalize marijuana. Hear me out for a second…" Beck told viewers in April. "We have to make a choice in this country. We have to either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars, or we legalize it. But this little game we're playing in the middle is not helping us, is not helping Mexico, and is causing massive violence on our southern border." Even Sarah Palin, who's opposed to legalization, has called pot a relatively "minimal problem," telling Fox Business Network this summer, "I think we need to prioritize our law-enforcement efforts. And if somebody's gonna smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody else harm, then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in and try to clean up some of the other problems that we have in society." (Palin has copped to trying pot during the time it was decriminalized in Alaska, but said she didn't like it.)

Legalization may not carry the day in California: in a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, support has fallen to 44 percent in favor of Prop 19 from 52 percent in September. Yet Prop 19 has sparked a surprisingly sober national discussion lacking in the hyperbole that has long surrounded marijuana. In the 1930s, "marihuana" was the insidious villain of Reefer Madness, the propaganda film that helped pave the way for Congress to outlaw the substance in 1937. In the 1960s, smoking dope was a symbol of hippie rebellion, a litmus test that determined on which side of the generation gap you belonged. By the 1970s, pot become the munchies-inducing punchline for stoner comedies like Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke, and in the '90s it morphed into a hip-hop status symbol, with rappers singing the praises of "chronic." The inevitable backlash came when George W. Bush's administration declared marijuana public enemy No. 1 in its war on drugs. Through it all, the partisan battle lines have stayed fairly consistent: liberals want the right to light up; conservatives want to snuff it out. Which makes the fact that so many conservatives are speaking up in favor of legalization all the more remarkable.

Certainly, the Republican Party is a long way from becoming the Pot Party. Although a handful of conservative thinkers like Milton Friedman, George Shultz, and William F. Buckley have argued the merits of legalization over the years (Buckley even mocked those who called marijuana a gateway to addiction, saying it was "on the order of saying that every rapist began by masturbating"), most Republicans still oppose the idea. In the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, only 25 percent of Republicans nationwide favor legalization of pot in their state, compared with 55 percent of Democrats.

Nonetheless, conservative attitudes are changing at the grassroots level (no pun intended). The percentage of Republicans in favor of legalizing marijuana has risen quickly since 2005, jumping 7 points. And as their constituents have moved on the issue, more Republican candidates and lawmakers are refusing to toe the party line. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who was Ronald Reagan's speechwriter during the "Just Say No" years, scoffs at the notion that marijuana leads to harder drugs. "Every person I've ever known to go onto harder drugs started with alcohol," says Rohrabacher, who supports legalization from a state's-rights perspective and is cosponsor of a bill to legalize hemp, the durable fiber derived from the same cannabis plant as pot. "Shall we balance the budget a bit? Quit this nanny-state idea that Americans can't even grow a cash crop?"

The libertarian Cato Institute just issued a detailed statistical analysis on how ending "prohibition"—a favored term for supporters of pot reform—could help America's budget woes. According to the much-discussed study, legalizing all illicit drugs would save the government $41.3 billion a year in law-enforcement costs and generate some $46.7 billion in tax revenue; marijuana would account for $8.7 billion of the savings, and another $8.7 billion in taxes. Legalized marijuana would certainly help fatten state coffers in debt-crippled California, where pot is the biggest agricultural crop, with $14 billion a year in sales that never appear on tax returns. Cost considerations aside, "the strongest argument is simply the question of liberty, or 'consumer sovereignty' as the economists would say," says the Cato study's coauthor Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard lecturer who recently penned a column for the Los Angeles Times titled DRUGS AND CONSERVATIVES SHOULD GO TOGETHER. The Cato Institute itself does not take a position on legalization, but spokesman Chris Kennedy tells NEWSWEEK that "all of our scholars definitely support an end to drug prohibition."

A popular joke has it that "a libertarian is a Republican who smokes pot." That may or may not extend to the Tea Party, which is made up of several different conservative strands and includes many people, especially social conservatives, who would oppose legalization. The cofounder of the National Tea Party Federation, Mark Skoda, doubts that many in his group are pro-pot, saying, "Legalization as a question isn't what animates or motivates Tea Partiers." Still, it's becoming increasingly hard for conservative candidates and lawmakers to square libertarian Tea Party catchphrases like "fiscal responsibility" and "limited government" with the government's war on drugs, especially when their constituents might prefer to see a war on joblessness. Marijuana arrests accounted for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States, with an American nabbed on marijuana charges every 37 seconds, as indicated by the FBI's 2009 Uniform Crime Report. Yet 88 percent of the arrests were for possession, not sale or manufacture, which means that many more recreational users are getting snared than growers or dealers.

At the same time, the war on drugs has grown increasingly bloody, with more than 28,000 people killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón began his crackdown on the drug cartels. Calderón, who opposes Prop 19, has had his victories: last week, Mexican officials in Baja California made the biggest drug bust in the nation's history, seizing 134 tons of pot (the equivalent of about 334 million joints) after a shootout with traffickers. Nonetheless, many believe a lot less blood would be shed if America were to legalize pot, which according to some estimates accounts for 60 percent of Mexico's drug trade with the U.S., in much the same way that ending Prohibition in 1933 cut short the careers of tommy-gun-wielding gangsters. As Pat Buchanan, adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, wrote in a column last year: "How does one win a drug war when millions of Americans who use recreational drugs are financing the cartels bribing, murdering, and beheading to win the war and keep self-indulgent Americans supplied with drugs?" Buchanan tells NEWSWEEK that he doesn't support legalization, but he mused in his column, "There are two sure ways to end this war swiftly. Milton's way and Mao's way. Mao Zedong's communists killed users and suppliers alike, as social parasites. Milton Friedman's way is to decriminalize drugs and call off the war." Of course, plenty of conservatives think Friedman was smoking something.

Karl Rove says the vast majority of Republicans rightly stand against full legalization of marijuana. "I believe that the social cost to the United States of legalization of drugs would be enormous, and would be something that would deeply harm our society, particularly those least equipped to deal with the ravages of drug dependency," he says. "We're not talking about the marijuana of the '60s. We're talking today about a marijuana that in many instances is far more potent, far more addictive, and—as a gateway drug—far more pernicious than it was in the '60s." And then there's the issue of where legalization stops. At cocaine? At meth? At heroin? William Bennett, who was drug czar under George H.W. Bush and now hosts a conservative talk show, says, "When I give commencement addresses, I tell the students, 'Don't keep your mind so open your brains fall out.' You've got to understand how much harm these drugs cause." Ann Coulter says pot is a "gateway to being a complete loser," and "the only possible argument for conservatives is that maybe more liberals will get stoned and forget to vote." Yet despite their opposition, conservatives who are anti-pot just don't seem to be getting as fired up about it as they used to. During an unlikely interview with Coulter and Cheech and Chong last November, Geraldo Rivera expressed surprise that he gets no hate mail on legalization but is bombarded when it's any other social issue, like gay rights. "Why aren't conservatives angry about this?" he asked Coulter. "Are they secretly potheads?"

Conservatives' mellowness may simply be generational. Few Americans today can say they're complete strangers to marijuana; they either had stoner friends in high school, or they got a contact high at a Guns N' Roses concert, or they themselves have inhaled. Marijuana use among Americans increased 8 percent last year, with 16.7 million people smoking pot in the past month alone, according to an annual report released in September by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. In the 14 states that allow medical marijuana, middle-aged baby boomers talk quite freely about filling their prescriptions at the local dispensary (of which there are nearly 1,400 in California alone). Republican strategist, columnist, and Denver-based attorney Jessica Corry, who has drawn attention to groups like the Women's Marijuana Movement and describes herself as a "pro-pot Republican mom," says that after she appeared on Fox News last year discussing legalization, she was deluged with e-mails of encouragement from both sides of the aisle. Some came from evangelical home-schoolers and Vietnam vets who'd never voted Democratic, "all just saying, 'We're with you.' I was stunned."

Still, there's a big difference between a Weeds-watching Republican helicopter mom talking about pot legalization and her congressman doing the same. "If you talk to a bunch of Republicans in Congress, they'll say it's a good idea, but they won't stick their head up and get shot at," Norquist says. Democratic officials are gun-shy as well. Marijuana-law reformers had expected that California's Democratic Party would endorse Prop 19. But the party, not wanting to put its candidates in an awkward position in a tough election year, declared itself neutral. The Obama administration pledged to end the raids of medical-marijuana facilities that flourished during the Bush years; however, the Justice Department has been clear that it will continue to enforce federal marijuana laws in California even if Prop 19 passes. "The Democrats are just so squeamish about this, that's the problem," says Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. "This issue is wide open for Republicans to take. If Meg Whitman held a press conference tomorrow and said she supports Prop 19 and would defend the state against federal interference, she would probably win."

It's the Nixon-goes-to-China phenomenon: people who might ignore a Democrat talking about legalization will give a fair hearing to a Republican. Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER, the leading marijuana-reform group in Colorado, is no longer surprised when a Republican candidate answers a questionnaire saying he or she favors legalization. He was in the room at the Lincoln Club earlier this year when former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo, now running for governor of Colorado on the Constitution Party ticket, told the elderly Republican crowd that even though he might be committing "political suicide," the time had come to think about legalizing drugs. In a September debate, Tancredo went even further, declaring, "Legalize it. Regulate it. Tax it." After lagging in the race for months, the candidate saw his poll numbers jump 10 points this month, bringing him close to his Democratic opponent, who is against legalization. Asked by NEWSWEEK about his official stance, Tancredo was more circumspect than he has been, saying in a statement: "With regard to marijuana, I have no plans to push for its legalization. I simply believe that taking money away from the drug cartels, taking the incentive out of pushing marijuana to kids by imposing the most serious penalties possible on those who do so, focusing our resources on stopping illegal aliens and hard drugs from entering the country, and reducing the corruption now eating away at our law-enforcement establishment has merit and deserves to be debated."

The conservative argument for marijuana legalization didn't begin with Prop 19. Nor is Prop 19 the nation's first pot-legalization initiative. In the 1970s, many states decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, but the Reagan administration put an end to the loosening of drug laws. Then came the medical-marijuana movement, which helped soften anti-pot sentiment among those on the right who favored compassionate conservatism. California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996, followed by 13 others that allow medicinal use and 26 that have "therapeutic research program" laws. Voters in Washington, D.C., passed a medical-marijuana initiative in 1998, but Congress blocked implementation until just this year. On Nov. 2, voters in Arizona and South Dakota will decide whether to legalize medical marijuana, and Oregonians will vote on improving current medical-marijuana laws. In red-state Arizona, recent polling shows a majority supports medical marijuana.

"We are two years away from reaching a tipping point," says Johnson, the former New Mexico governor. He recently told Tea Partiers at the 9/12 FreedomWorks rally on the south lawn of the Capitol that with so much money going to prosecute and incarcerate marijuana users, the time to end pot prohibition is now. "There were plenty of boos," Johnson says, but nonetheless, he sparked a discussion. And that dialogue will continue no matter what happens in California on Nov. 2. Richard Lee, the wheelchair-bound force behind Prop 19, vows that if marijuana legalization fails this time, "we'll work towards a 2012 initiative." And his conservative parents will be right by his side, continuing to make the case for legalization. "Abraham Lincoln said prohibition 'attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation, and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes,'?" Richard's mom says, citing a popular quote among pro-legalization types. Not surprisingly, some in the anti-pot camp reasonably question whether the father of the Republican Party ever said those words. But whatever his stance, Lincoln would be pleased to see America having such a civil discussion over the rights of a free people.

With Katie Maloney