Up in Smoke: Why the GOP’s Views on Pot are Showing Signs of a Shift

The push to legalize pot migrates from the margins to the mainstream, mellowing some Republicans in the process.

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Nir Elias / REUTERS

A worker touches a cannabis plant at a growing facility for the Tikun Olam company near the city of Safed, Aug. 22, 2010.

Ken Cuccinelli was in unfriendly territory when he stepped to the podium in a sloping auditorium at the University of Virginia on Feb. 6. A conservative icon in a hall crammed with college kids is a powder keg awaiting a spark, and cops had been summoned to defuse any eruptions. But the commonwealth’s attorney general disarmed his audience by citing the “fascinating experiment” underway in Colorado and Washington, states where voters legalized marijuana in landmark referendums last fall. “I’m not at all unhappy that they’re doing it,” he said, noting that his views on drug enforcement are “evolving.”

It’s a perspective often voiced in late-night dorm-room discussions but rarely uttered by an ascendant Republican running for governor. Yet as the push to legalize pot migrates from the margins to the mainstream, it is mellowing some Republicans in the process. “If it was a secret ballot, the majority of Republicans would have voted to legalize marijuana a long time ago,” says GOP Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who opposes the “monstrous” war on drugs. For years, conservatives’ convictions have been trumped by the fear of being painted as soft on crime in a primary ad, he says. But now, “when the Republicans start wetting their finger and sticking it in the air, they’ve got to begin to realize that the wind is blowing in the opposite direction.

(MOREPot Plans: Efforts Surge in Congress to Reform Marijuana Laws)

Pot is having a political moment. The percentage of Americans who favor scrapping the 75-year-old federal prohibition on weed has doubled during the past decade to about 50% and is projected to keep climbing. The statistical guru Nate Silver has predicted the figure could hit 60% within the next 10 years. In addition to Colorado and Washington, where a majority of voters opted to outright legalize lighting up in November, 18 states plus the District of Columbia permit licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. Fifteen more have decriminalized possession.

It’s unlikely these statutes could survive a collision with federal law, which is unlikely to change anytime soon. But Rohrabacher says conservative ideology should spur the party to revisit its policies. The party’s libertarian wing has long opposed government infringement on personal choice. Fiscal hawks can point to the billions of dollars in taxes and fees that legalizing weed might yield for recession-hobbled state budgets. Then there’s the budding alliance between stoners and conservatives — like Cuccinelli, former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul — who don’t advocate legalization but say states should have the right to make that choice.

“I don’t have a problem with states experimenting with this sort of thing. I think that’s part of the role of states,” Cuccinelli, who declined an interview with TIME, told students in Charlottesville. The attorney general, 44, said that while he wasn’t sure what Virginia’s future held, “I am personally for a lot of reasons, for the federalism reason…very interested to see how that plays out in Colorado and Washington.” Daniels made a similar point in an interview with National Review. “Federalism is, first and foremost, a protection of liberty. And I would just hope that people who say they believe that would be consistent,” he said. “Without endorsing what they [Colorado and Washington] did, I think they had, under our system, a right to do it…A lot of the worst problems we’ve got in this country, and some of the worst divisions we have, came when the right of citizens in community and in polities, like their state, had those rights usurped by the federal government. And having disagreed with it when it happened on other occasions, I sure wouldn’t call for it here.”

(MORE: Grass Roots: Washington and Colorado Legalize Marijuana)

He’s not alone. GOP Congressman Mike Coffman opposed the referendum in his home state of Colorado. But after it passed with 55% support, he signed onto a bill warning the Justice Department, which is weighing how to cope with state laws that defy a federal statute, not to meddle with the result. According to a recent CBS News poll, 65% of Republicans think the decision should be left up to the states.

A softer stance could also help Republicans compete for young voters, who overwhelming favor legalization and who fled the party in recent presidential elections. “It’s one of the easier things for them to do,” says Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist whose class Cuccinelli visited. “It’s easier than immigration. It’s easier than supporting gay rights.” And pot is as much a touchstone social issue for young voters as abortion and gay marriage. It’s one of the reasons the libertarian Ron Paul earned such a fervent following.

The trick now, says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, “is to get them to look at the data and understand that they are facing no real political risk.” In liberal states like California, Massachusetts, Maine and Oregon, that may be true. It hasn’t hurt the staunchly conservative Rohrabacher, a former Reagan speechwriter who “dutifully supported the war on drugs” for a long time. “Since I have decided to be very frank about this issue, I have had no repercussions at all,” he adds.

(MORE: Will States Lead the Way to Legalize Pot Nationwide?)

Legalization won’t be easy, and not least because state statutes are superseded by federal law. “A state doesn’t have the right to legalize marijuana any more than a state has the right to legalize anything else expressly prohibited by federal law,” says Kevin Sabet, a former Obama Administration drug-policy adviser and a co-founded of a group called Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). Chaired by former Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy, the group promotes a middle path between draconian drug laws and legalization while warning about the detriments of the drug.

Still, the notion is more politically viable than ever, thanks to the apogee of the ’60s-reared baby boomer generation, a recession that makes new revenue streams look enticing and the failures of a drug war that has overburdened prisons and failed to differentiate between drugs such as marijuana and methamphetamine. “Our history has demonstrated that it isn’t very effective,” Cuccinelli said in Virginia. While Rohrabacher concedes that Congress is nowhere close to letting smokers light up with impunity, he predicts that by 2016, it will be a major issue in the Republican presidential primary. Letting states legalize weed boils down to limited government, he says. “That’s a very legitimately conservative position.”

86 comments
gonzilla
gonzilla

@TIME they realized it's not about pot, way more important issues out there. war on drugs should focus on hardcore stuff and education

odestino
odestino

@_LuckyBastard pq ninguém quer perder eleições

BrianParsons
BrianParsons

“A state doesn’t have the right to legalize marijuana any more than a state has the right to legalize anything else expressly prohibited by federal law,” says Kevin Sabet, a former Obama Administration drug-policy adviser


Apparently Mr. Sabet hasn't read the Constitution.  Because there is zero Federal jurisdiction for drug prohibition.  This is why the 18th amendment was necessary for Alcohol prohibition, 3/4 of the State legislatures had to ratify it.  Mr. Sabet is a perfectexample of stupidity in Washington.

AliceSalles
AliceSalles

@_LuckyBastard we want hemp! we want it now!

thurmanhubbard
thurmanhubbard

I am STILL waiting for someone to tell me why it took a Constitutional amendment to prohibit alcohol nationwide, and again to reverse it, but to outlaw a previously legal crop the same process wasn't necessary. 

Cannabis prohibition is and always has been unconstitutional. It is the single biggest piece of evidence that our federal govt has become a tyrannical behemoth in need of castration. And please, don't tell me about the racism of the original prohibitionists or how they were protecting the interests of DuPont, Hearst, et. al. I'm well aware of the malicious motivations of those folks.

MalcolmKyle
MalcolmKyle

It's time for us all to stop being ignorant hypocrites and start being "true" conservatives —trying to control each and every thing that 350 million people do with their bodies is not small government!

Pragmatic libertarians (minimal-statists) and true conservatives agree that many, if not most, of society's problems are caused by government usurping choices that could better be made by individuals themselves, and that government is just about the worst way of doing almost anything. Where libertarianism normally parts company with "fake" conservatism is over moral issues. But a true conservative would have no problem with agreeing that what people do with their own bodies, and especially in the privacy of their own home, should be supremely their business and that anything else would entail ignoring the basic tenet of limited government.

Fake-conservatism on the other hand has much in common with socialism. Authoritarian-socialists and fake-conservatives appear to harbor the belief that nature does not exist and that any human can be "re-educated" into being anything society wishes. Leftists therefore tend to believe that little boys can be conditioned into preferring dolls over toy soldiers, and similarly, fake-conservatives believe that adults can be coerced into choosing alcohol over marijuana. A true conservative, just like a pragmatic libertarian, would immediately reject both ideas as nonsense. 

If you support prohibition then you are NOT a conservative.

Conservative principles quite clearly are:

1) Limited, locally controlled government.

2) Individual liberty coupled with personal responsibility.

3) Free enterprise.

4) A strong national defense.

5) Fiscal responsibility.

Prohibition is actually an authoritarian war on our economy and Constitution.

It's all about market and cost/benefit analysis. Whether any particular drug is good, bad, or otherwise is irrelevant. As long as there is demand for any mind altering substance there WILL be supply! The only affect prohibiting it has is to drive the price up while increasing the costs and profits - and where there is illegal profit to be made criminals and terrorists thrive.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

Had a friend raided by the DEA in Ohio for 17 pounds he grew just so he would never have to buy a bag again and have a bit of cash on the side...


now the nearly 60 year old guy (who covertly managed to grow that grass!) is screwed.... feel so bad for the guy.

Toes
Toes

When the old, moldy cold war arguments about an exaggerated threat of "socialism" fail, it's time to get groovy!

DizzyDame1
DizzyDame1

Yes, Duncan20903, but it's still funny 3 1/2 decades later and the phrase "up in smoke" immediately relays to all what the article will be about. I am still constantly amazed how much of the taboo counterculture of the '60's turns up in the mainstream lexicon today. At the time all I believed in so passionately was considered so wrong by 99.9% of the people of all ages I was surrounded by in the backwater culture I had to endure until I became old enough to leave. And, yes, Tonyhj55, we will have to wait for the oldest generation to pass on before sane progressive ideas can steer our country down the most intelligent path because, believe you me, they are still in power and holding us back in many parts of the country that cling to the culture I had the misfortune to grow up in. I just hope I can outlive them to finally see the fruition of the "Age of Aquarius"!

Coinspinn3r
Coinspinn3r

Kevin Sabet doesn't understand law or history.  New York legalized alcohol in 1923, 10 years before the Federal Government did.  

The Feds are free to continue to enforce marijuana prohibition (because they are clueless power hungry morons trying to hold back the tide).  Nothing in the CSA or Constitution forces states to criminalize any behaviors just because the Federal Government does.

Duncan20903
Duncan20903

Is there some kind of law that requires stupid pot jokes be included in articles and headlines in the MSM? Could you guys at least come up with some new material?  Cheech & Chong released "Up in Smoke" in 1978 for crying out loud. That's 3 1/2 decades ago.

Tonyjh55
Tonyjh55

@TIME unfortunate that message in here is we have to wait for the older generation to pass on.

PlumbLine
PlumbLine

2 Timothy 3:1-4............

3 But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,

billgriggs4
billgriggs4

Marijuana will be legalized. It's inevitable. Right now polls are showing that a slight majority of Americans support legalization with fairly strong support among voters under 65.  Voters 65 and older tend to strongly oppose legalization.  They're the ones who grew up before marijuana use started taking off in this country. They didn't smoke it. Their friends didn't smoke it. Federal drug survey numbers show that over half of all American adults under 65 have smoked it though.  Every year now something like 1.8 million of these senior citizens who tend to be so strongly opposed to legalization will die off and many more will become too old and sick to vote. At the same time, more Baby Boomers will hit 65 and replace many of the older voters in the senior citizen ranks.  Over the next several years we'll see support for legalization among those 65 and older growing at a much faster rate than among younger voters. And of course every year we'll see a few million young people, the majority of which support legalization, reach voting age.  It's only a matter of time before we legalize, and not that much time. 

PerryWhite1
PerryWhite1

I was gonna make a joke about Rand Paul obviously being stoned 24/7, but then I read the story, and it seems redundant.

sacredh
sacredh

"The statistical guru Nate Silver has predicted the figure could hit 60% within the next 10 years."

I'd put money on 5 or less. 

DizzyDame1
DizzyDame1

Does anyone else out there recognize that the "changing" attitudes of the Right on this subject is totally about the declining profits of the powerful tobacco industry? They need something to grow that is hugely profitable but will not kill you! It is no accident that this event took place in Virginia or that Mitch McConnell's recent statement of support for the "hemp" industry involves another tobacco growing state. It's ALWAYS about the money on the Right. But, hey, I'm willing to pretend I believe their motives if it means being able to divert the "drug war" money to fighting the really destructive and violent crime inducing drugs like Meth, not to mention broadening the tax base in order to provide jobs repairing our infrastructure like the ones our grandfathers were given to help pull the country out of the Depression. It could be a win-win for everyone.

Tonyjh55
Tonyjh55

@TIME Tobacco is harmful yet I can get a pack at Walgreens. The rational of pot being illegal is irrational...Republicans in a nutshell.

Tonyjh55
Tonyjh55

@TIME The paranoia that comes with marijuana is because of it being illegal. Do people get paranoid when or while buying a bottle of wine?

marcopolitics
marcopolitics

Ron Paul only person that raned for President with guts to speak the truth abouth the War on Drugs

DrEvilePhd
DrEvilePhd

If only the Republicans could take this same approach regarding abortion.  Unfortunately, they are "conservative" only when they want to be.  Otherwise, it's okay to strip liberties away...even when it comes to a woman's personal health care decisions regarding her own body.  

regs130
regs130

Knew these repubs would come around @TIME: Why some Republicans are mellowing their stance on pot | http://t.co/TNlVHvyi

hattymaines
hattymaines

@TIME they realize their social platform is outdated and offensive

_LuckyBastard
_LuckyBastard

@AliceSalles hahaha, I know I do, and I will get it :P

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

actually will say this happened liked a week ago.... he is not in jail yet and is still awaiting charges.

Duncan20903
Duncan20903

@Tonyjh55 someday you whippersnappers will realize that every generation has it's share of hall monitors. For crying out loud Willie Nelson will turn 80 on April 30th. Tommy Chong will turn 75 on May 24th. I'm going to turn 53 in October.

MalcolmKyle
MalcolmKyle

@PlumbLine. Jesus specifically told his disciples to “anoint” people. That anointing took place using a specific formula made from a recipe found in the Old Testament book of Exodus.

That recipe (Exodus 30:23) includes about 6 pounds of “kaneh-bosen”. 

According to many biblical scholars, “kaneh-bosen” was/is Marijuana.

Most of the diseases mentioned as being healed miraculously after anointing are, curiously, the same ones that cannabis can heal today. Things like epilepsy, leprosy, and “crooked limbs” (an obvious reference to multiple sclerosis).

Exodus 30:

23 Moreover, the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even 250 shekels, and of qaneh-bosm [cannabis] 250 shekels, 24 And of cassia 500 shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin: 25 And thou shalt make it an oil of holy anointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil. 26 And thous shalt anoint the tabernacle of the congregation therewith, and the ark of the testimony, 27 And the table and all his vessels, and the candlestick ahd his vessels, and the altar of incense, 28 And the altar of burnt offerings with all his vessels, and the laver and his foot. 29 And thou shalt sanctify them, that they may be most holy: whatsoever toucheth them shall be holy. 

davidmc
davidmc

@PlumbLine Paul wrote, I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. … For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. (Paul: Romans 14:14,17)

Duncan20903
Duncan20903

@PlumbLineProverbs 31:6 Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts.

 But we're talking about the law and in the United States that means that The Big Fairy Tale (AKA The Holy Bible) is meaningless.

billgriggs4
billgriggs4

Silver predicted that in 2009 and he based that on the rate at which support had grown every year since the early 1990s.  Since then support has grown at a much faster rate.  I bet if he did the same math today he'd be predicting 60% well before the end of this decade.  I think a lot of the growth in support we've seen over the years has come just because people who have moked pot are getting older while those who came of age before pot use took off in this country are steadily dying off.  According to federal drug use numbers, we hit the point a few years ago where over half of all American adults under the age of 65 had tried marijuana (but those close to 65 where less likely to have smoked than people ten or fifteen years younger than them as it took a while for pot to spread to every corner of America.) Things are different now though because we've had a couple of states legalize and the debate is really heating up.  People are starting to see the writing on the wall, that it is going to happen anyway, and more and more are thinking we need to just get it over with. This particular prohibition doesn't work.  Pot isn't such a threat that it makes sense to keep blowing so much money and wasting so many resources and causing so many problems with a prohibition that stops nothing, that is so ineffective. People are tired of it and that sentiment is growing fast. It's only a matter of time, and not that much time.

Duncan20903
Duncan20903

Smoking is not required to gain the benefits of cannabis, whether for medicinal need or just for enjoyment. Vaporization is proven safe,  less expensive, and preferred by patients over smoking by a margin of 7:1 in peer reviewed research published in 2007. 
http://www.cmcr.ucsd.edu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=149:vaporization-as-a-qsmokelessq-cannabis-delivery-system&catid=41:research-studies&Itemid=135

Duncan20903
Duncan20903

Who gets paranoid about pot? Do paranoid people really work to get laws changed?

The paranoia thing is an old wives tale.

Duncan20903
Duncan20903

Well except for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Roseanne Barr (not a joke). All three got substantially in excess of a million votes combined more than Ron Paul did on Election Day 2012.

Barbaric_Yawwp
Barbaric_Yawwp

@DrEvilePhd a) abortion isn't a health care decision, that's completely ridiculous.  Only a tiny percentage of abortions are done to protect the mothers life.  b) the unborn fetus is a separate living being with its own set of right, including the right to live

marcopolitics
marcopolitics

@hattymaines Where was Obama on the drug war?

mazurekstuff
mazurekstuff

@Duncan20903 your wisdom is beating up on my ignorance and I'm not sure who is going to win... :(


One day maybe people will be free to do what they please AS LONG AS it doesn't harm anyone else.

sacredh
sacredh

"I think a lot of the growth in support we've seen over the years has come just because people who have moked pot are getting older while those who came of age before pot use took off in this country are steadily dying off.'

I think you're right. Even us former hippies that quit a long time ago think it's ridiculous to keep it criminal. I quit a quarter century ago because I took up woodworking and didn't want to risk losing a gravy job. I don't regret quitting and I don't miss it. The states and the federal government are missing out on a cash cow. I don't believe for one minute that people don't smoke because it's illegal. Those who want to smoke, smoke.

DrEvilePhd
DrEvilePhd

@Barbaric_Yawwp @DrEvilePhd

I'm late to reply...but...you assume the "unborn" has its own distinct set of rights.  The fact is, it does not.  It is a biologic entity indistinct from that of its mother (in other words, it's NOT separate).  It cannot be given a social security number, or any other "identity" completely distinct from its mother until it is born and the umbilical cord is cut.

In any event, the point of my post was to indicate that the state has no business telling a pregnant mother what she can and cannot do with her body.  Any decision that is made to do anything to one's body can be considered health-care.  This can range from what we eat to whether we have an abortion.  At the end of the day, the decision is mine as to what I eat and whether I have an abortion.  Sorry...

DaveCarroll
DaveCarroll

@DrEvilePhd @Barbaric_Yawwp Either way there's no 'unborn' question when it comes to cannabis so it's a completely separate issue and your comparison is not relevant.

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

Where was the drug war?

Right around the time we said 'no.'