Now that marijuana legalization seems to have reached a tipping point, it may be necessary for conservatives in politics and government to give it that last push to legalization at the federal level.
At least 28 states already have legalized medical marijuana use and nine of those have also approved recreational use. Voters in three more states seem poised to approve medical use this November, and another may add recreational use.
As many as eight other states have at least a chance of some form of legalization sometime this year.
It’s not a surprise, then, that longtime anti-cannabis warrior and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to enforce the federal marijuana laws and wage drug war on states that have willfully violated those laws.
The fact that those violations almost exclusively were at the behest of their voters doesn’t matter.
On average more Democrats than Republicans seem to favor marijuana legalization—although even 90 percent of Republicans support making medical marijuana legal. Recreational pot gets a thumbs-up from 51 percent of Republicans, though much of that support comes from younger cohorts.
In Michigan, where a recreational legalization proposal has made it onto the November ballot, the Republican-majority legislature considered passing an identical law first to keep at least some Democrat supporters home.
Relatively few Democrats and liberals in Congress have come out for legalization, perhaps fearful of seeming like extreme leftists or otherwise “soft” on drugs or crime. Even former US President Barack Obama, who had a reputation as a heavy-duty toker in college, didn’t do much to push a pro-legalization agenda.
Sitting politicians of either stripe seem far more reluctant to embrace those state laws, oftentimes doing what they can to prevent the laws going into effect or adding requirements—such as not allowing marijuana in cigarette or vape form, or delaying or refusing to grant the licenses to marijuana businesses.
In New York, one of the more progressive states in the country, marijuana legalization has been opposed by progressive Democrats.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has resisted all moves towards legalizing cannabis, as has New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Now Cuomo—perhaps due to the inevitability, possibly because of a primary challenge from actress and marijuana proponent Cynthia Nixon—“has appointed a commission to study the issue”. De Blasio also—maybe bowing to pressure from his district attorneys—agreed to stop arresting marijuana users where there is no public safety concer, citing apparent racist enforcement of existing laws.
Still, many observers believe that the momentum towards marijuana legalization in the US reached a point of no return just in time for this year’s 4/20 informal cannabis celebration.
What’s changed? For an answer, look to some top conservative Republicans.
Current president Donald Trump doesn’t seem to believe in anything more intoxicating than cola—his elder brother died of alcoholism-related causes—but he’s been of at least two minds about marijuana legalization.
He appointed ferocious marijuana opponent Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, and Trump’s first Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, also opposed legalization in the strongest possible terms.
During the presidential campaign, however, Trump more-or-less stated he would let the states decide whether and how to legalize marijuana. His choice of Sessions seemed to be a reversal, but lately, it seems as if he’s been holding Sessions back.
Last month he agreed, under pressure from Colorado’s Republican US Sen. Cory Gardner to not interfere with Colorado’s marijuana industry. (Gardner had vowed to block every Justice Department nominee until he received such a reassurance.).
Another politician who recently has reversed himself and now supports legalization—at least for medical use and study—is former House Speaker John Boehner. He has joined the board of Acreage Holdings, a cannabis company “with cultivation, processing and dispensing operations across 11 states.”
In 2011, Boehner wrote, “I am unalterably opposed to the legalization of marijuana or any other FDA Schedule I drug” because he was “concerned that legalization will result in increased abuse of all varieties of drugs, including alcohol.”
Now, Boehner says, “my thinking on cannabis has evolved. I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities”.
Cynics might say the money Boehner will no doubt receive was a motivating factor, but opponents of legalization face similar suspicions.
Former Rhode Island Democrat Patrick Kennedy is and has been a strong opponent of legalization. Just last month he urged Congress not to do as fellow Democrat Chuck Schumer proposed and legalize marijuana.
Kennedy’s opposition seems to come from deeply held beliefs, and his experience of addiction personally and among his family in general. Kennedy, whose father was Sen. Ted Kennedy, has seen the effects of alcoholism as a son and in his personal life. He also had an addiction to prescription pills and other drugs, and suffered from bipolar disorder.
(Mental illness and drug addiction often go together; it’s called a dual diagnosis.)
Kennedy is an “honorary adviser” for Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), though a more accurate name would be No Approaches to Marijuana. Among its goals are:
- Stopping and reversing “the commercialization and normalization of marijuana,” including preventing the creation of a Big Marijuana after the model of Big Tobacco.
- Finding “a middle road between incarceration and legalization”.
- Decreasing “marijuana use and its consequences.“
According to SAM, it wants “an approach that neither legalizes nor demonizes marijuana.” They don’t believe it’s healthy or helpful, though they wouldn’t imprison users or prevent research.
Kennedy also is a founder of Advocates for Opioid Recovery (AOR), which promotes non-moralistic and scientific opiate addiction treatment, and The Kennedy Forum which promotes effective behavioral health treatment.
What gives some pause is that a firm that makes a scientific opiate addiction treatment of the kind advocated by AOR has contributed to one or more of his organizations, and Kennedy is on the board of an addiction treatment center.
One of Kennedy’s co-founders of AOR is conservative former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. While in 1996 he called for the execution of dealers of drugs, including marijuana, in 1982 he wrote in support of medical marijuana in the Journal of the American Medical Association. During his 2012 campaign for president, he said (without fanfare) that he wasn’t in favor of busting people for marijuana possession.
Other conservatives who have voiced some support for the relaxation of marijuana laws include Meghan McCain (daughter of Arizona Sen. John McCain), right-wing pundit Glenn Beck, former Alaskan mayor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Fox News host Sean Hannity and televangelist Pat Robertson.
Not that there’s a full red wave of legalization support.
Last year the final report of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis—led by former New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie—was opposed to marijuana use even as a treatment for opioid addiction.
Still, as the worst fears of recreational marijuana opponents fail to materialize in states such as Colorado, Washington, and California, and with full legalization of cannabis in Canada likely to begin by summer’s end, politicians are faced with the consequences of not legalizing marijuana: lost profits, tax revenues, and credibility.
In almost a half-a-century of the War on Drugs and “Just Say No,” Americans have learned they can’t believe what their government says about the dangers of marijuana. Their own experience refutes it.
Prohibition never works when what you’re prohibiting is something the people want or maybe need.
Many Americans, including war veterans, believe marijuana helps them cope with their post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic pain. Marijuana can be harmful, but so can any legal product, most notably tobacco, alcohol and prescription opiate drugs.
Conservatives often espouse Henry David Thoreau’s belief “That government is best which governs least.”
Some are now concluding that should apply to marijuana, too.
Stephen Bitsoli, a Michigan-based freelancer, writes about addiction, politics and related matters for several blogs. He welcomes readers’ comments.