“We have to make a choice in this country,” said a prominent cable news personality in 2009. “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… I think it’s about time we legalize marijuana.”
People might expect this sentiment from an MSNBC host, but this pro-legalization rant came from former FOX News host Glenn Beck. That’s right, it appears Glenn Beck and Kanye West finally agree on something, and if these opposing personalities can find common ground on cannabis, maybe America’s two political parties can as well. Legalization could become the first major bipartisan issue in a post-Obama America.
Consider several of the key issues found in the official party platforms. The Republicans espouse state’s rights, spending cuts, civil liberties and limitations on government oversight. Prohibition, however, effectively promotes the following:
- A denial of state sovereignty on cannabis issues in favor of federal regulation
- Federal interference on medical decisions made between a doctor and patient
- Excessive government spending on incarceration, law enforcement and the drug war
- Restrictions on civil liberties involving personal use in the privacy of one’s home
The Democrats, meanwhile, prioritize social justice, racial equality, health care and employment issues. Prohibition also counters these priorities in several ways, including the following:
- Prevents the natural production of new jobs in the cannabis industry
- Creates employment hurdles via criminal records related to cannabis
- Fosters social and racial injustice with discriminatory drug law enforcement
- Limits legitimate health care options for serious and terminal conditions
In this age of hyper-partisanship, few issues exist in which aging hippies and left-leaning millennials can unite with rural conservatives and family-values suburbanites. On the issue of cannabis, however, the tide is turning. In ever-increasing numbers, individuals in both parties recognize the benefits of reform, the damage from prohibition and the dishonest propaganda in anti-cannabis campaigns.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank co-founded by Charles Koch, looked into the issue with the 2010 study The Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition. The 54-page findings argued that ending cannabis prohibition would cut spending by $8.7 billion and increase tax revenue by the same amount. In other words, ending prohibition would cut spending, increase tax revenues and produce more jobs. If that is not an equitable balance for each party’s priorities, what is?
Stereotypes suggest that ending prohibition is a liberal cause, and polls do show that Democrats are twice as likely to support legalization than Republicans, but several conservatives are taking public stands. Former judge Andrew Napolitano said, “These are times that call for more freedom, rather than less” in offering his support for legalization, while right-wing power broker Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform) aligned with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) on a bill to allow legitimate dispensaries to deduct business expenses on their federal tax returns. Mama Grizzly herself, Sarah Palin, even told National Review in 2009 that “I’m not going to get in the way of a doctor prescribing something that he or she believes will help a cancer patient.”
Speaking of National Review, William F. Buckley founded the seminal conservative magazine 60 years ago. During an interview with the Yale Free Press in 2001, Buckley said, “The idea of marijuana as a gateway drug I don't think is borne out by statistics. That's like saying that everybody who is guilty of rape once masturbated.”
Anti-prohibition conservatives like Buckley were more common in the 1970s, and in 1972, National Review ran the headline “The Time Has Come: Abolish the Pot Laws.” The War on Drugs propaganda machine helped shift the needle in prohibition’s favor, but the political pendulum appears to be swinging back. A Pew Research survey last year found that 63% of Republican millennials support cannabis legalization.
The religious right might still need more convincing, and some conservatives believe the cultural associations with cannabis justify its prohibition even if science and sociology do not. At the same time, yellow-bellied Democrats who privately support legalization often avoid public support because focus-group data suggests they shouldn’t. Libertarians, economic conservatives and conscience-driven liberals currently lead the political charge, and with the change in tides becoming ever-more clear, the number of legalization supporters should continue to swell.
In 2015, bipartisanship took a major step forward when Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and presidential candidate Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act. The proposed bill would end federal prohibition, expand medical research, change the controlled substance schedule and reclassify certain CBD strains for expanded use. A few weeks later, Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Don Young (R-AK) led a bipartisan effort in the House introducing a similar bill to restrict prohibition and increase access.
Similarly, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) helped make history with their Veterans Equal Access Amendment. The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee voted (20 to 9) in favor of the bipartisan bill, which allows Veterans Administration (VA) doctors to recommend medical marijuana (MMJ) for patients in states that legalized MMJ use. The historic vote marked the first time any Senate body approved legislation that increased access to cannabis. The bill also passed on the House floor by a 233 to 189 vote before the provision was stripped from the appropriations bill in an unprecedented move.
Already in 2017, several cannabis-related bills have been filed, including the bipartisan Legitimate Use of Medical Marijuana Act co-sponsored by Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith and the aforementioned Earl Blumenauer. Likewise, Republican Dana Rohrabacher reportedly plans to propose putting cannabis under the purview of the individual states, not the federal government. How far will these legislative bills go? Time will tell, but unlike the hyper-partisan battles under Obama, pro-cannabis legislation will likely pass by bringing the political parties together rather than pushing them further apart.