ATLANTA — Former President Ronald Reagan once declared that smoking a single marijuana joint is as damaging to one’s brain as “being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast.”
Lots of conservatives (and some liberals) of course still hold similar views. Yet the first potential federal easing of marijuana prohibition – the passage in the House on Friday of an amendment that would prevent the federal government from prosecuting medical marijuana dispensaries in states where they’re legal – could not have happened without a new breed of Republicans willing to let at least some Americans toke without fear of raids and arrest.
So-called “respect state marijuana laws” bills have been tried several times since 2003, but have always failed because of GOP opposition. But on Friday, the leading Republican supporter, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, of California, found enough support to win passage among a broad gallery of conservatives, including tea party champion Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, Steve Stockman of Texas, and California’s Tom McClintock.
To be sure, that contingent still looked small since Republicans voted against the amendment by a 3-to-1 margin. But political analysts said the fact that 49 Republicans voted for what was in essence a historic pro-pot amendment nevertheless represents a significant shift inside the GOP – especially given that only 28 Republicans voted for a similar measure last year.
“It looks like Republicans may be gradually recovering from a cannabis-induced fog that made them forget the Constitution,” writes Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at the libertarian Reason Foundation, in Forbes.
To be sure, the main GOP tack on medical marijuana laws in 22 states has been to fault the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder for failing to crack down harder on dispensaries and states like Colorado and Washington that have now legalized recreational marijuana.
“The state of Colorado is undermining … federal law, correct?” Rep. Jason Smith, a Missouri Republican, asked Mr. Holder at a recent hearing. “Why do you fail to enforce the laws of the land?”
Yet the dissent in the GOP ranks over marijuana prohibition is definitely growing.
Georgia’s Rep. Broun, who earlier this month lost a primary bid for the US Senate, testified last week that medical marijuana is “less dangerous than some narcotics that doctors prescribe all over this country.” Broun also noted that allowing states to experiment with marijuana laws is needed to “reserve the states’ powers under the Constitution.”
Some members of a new Republican Study Committee Taskforce on the 10th Amendment are also open to the argument. According to Friday’s vote, 21 percent of the members are for protecting medical marijuana states from federal interference, up from 11 percent two years ago.
In Sacramento, the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization advocacy group, has endorsed Igor Birman, a tea party politician looking to unseat a Democratic Congresswoman. MPP lobbyist Dan Riffle said Mr. Birman “is among the growing number of Republicans with common sense views on marijuana.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said recently that the state may find an administrative way to allow medical marijuana dispensaries – which, if it happens, would be the first real entrée of legal marijuana into the Bible Belt.
And then there are shifts in public perception among Republican voters.
The Pew Research Center found recently that 61 percent of Republican voters believe medical marijuana should be legal. Only ten years ago, Americans on the whole opposed marijuana legalization by a 2-to-1 margin.
Such shifts suggest that rolling marijuana legalization into a states’ rights wrapper could be a political winner for a party struggling for relevance in an increasingly tolerant US society.
For one, the fervent, tea party-inspired debate on the right about states’ rights gives Republicans a way to defend a pro-marijuana stance.
“The rise of the tea party … has given an unforeseen boost to the legalization movement,” writes Evan Halper, in the Los Angeles Times. “The reason: More Republicans are coming around to the view that prosecuting medical marijuana dispensaries is a violation of states’ rights.”
Moreover, Republicans can use the issue to delineate themselves from Democrats like Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown, who says legalized marijuana “would sap America’s gumption,” as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Jake Ellison put it in a recent article about whether Ronald Reagan, who died in 2004, would have supported legalization. (Unlikely, was Mr. Ellison’s conclusion.)
The medical marijuana protection amendment still faces hurdles in Congress. It’s not clear at all whether it will pass the Democrat-controlled Senate as part of a broader appropriations package.