Republicans Have Finally Turned Against the Drug War

Libertarian Republicans are pushing the party to get behind marijuana legalization. Is this a culture war the GOP is willing to lose?

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Mar 11 2014, 3:29pm

Former sheriff Howard Wooldridge uses CPAC to evangelize against the War on Drugs. 

When the Conservative Political Action Conference came to its rapturous close this weekend, I left the Gaylord Convention Center, in National Harbor, Maryland, the same way that I left previous CPACs—with a splitting headache, a purse full of Tea Party beer koozies, and the contented reassurance that America’s culture wars will rage on for another year.

Founded in 1973 as a response to the progressive hippie movements of the 1960s, CPAC is sort of like a G8 Summit for the far right—a bacchanal of red-state jingoism where the various tribes of the Republican Party plot wars, Bible-thump, and imagine an America made in their own image. Gay Republican groups have been forbidden from sponsoring the event, and atheists were similarly disinvited this year after social conservatives threatened a boycott. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum was back this year, as were John Bolton, Sarah Palin, and Lt. Col. Oliver North, among other ghosts of culture wars past. On Saturday, Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has likened gay marriage to pedophilia and bestiality and thinks LGBT people shouldn’t get “extra rights,” won third place in the CPAC straw poll, a fantasy “vote” where fringe conservatives pick their dream president.

In short, this is a crowd that relishes a battle—especially a losing one. So it seemed natural to assume that this year’s CPAC discussion on marijuana legalization would be a swan song to prohibition and the War on Drugs. Even the title of the panel—"Rocky Mountain High: Does Legalized Pot Mean Society's Going Up In Smoke?"—suggested a room full of Willie Horton Republicans grumbling about gateway drugs and the country’s moral decay.

The panel started off predictably enough, pitting prohibitionist panelist Christopher Beach, an executive producer for drug-czar-turned-talk-radio-host Bill Bennett, against Fox News commenter Mary Katharine Ham. Beach spouted off the familiar arguments: that despite massive costs and overflowing prisons, the war on drugs is actually working, that weed is bad for you, and that legalization could have dire unforeseen consequences for public health and safety.

But then a surprising thing happened: No one bought it. CPAC Republicans, it turns out, really like their weed—or at least like the idea of legalizing it. One by one, the audience members turned against Beach, heckling his talking points and bombarding him with anti-drug war stats. A College Republican in Rand Paul swag demanded that Beach account for DEA surveillance. When Beach suggested that the government is responsible for public safety, the entire audience broke out in loud jeers. Any prohibition Republicans in the room were likely shamed into silence when Howard Wooldridge, an ex-sheriff in a cowboy hat and a homemade "COPS SAY LEGALIZE POT: ASK ME WHY" shirt, started yelling “Nanny State Liberal!” at Beach from the back of the room.

“The war on drugs is the most destructive, dysfunctional, and immoral policy since slavery and Jim Crow,” Howard shouted at Beach. “How do you justify morally the deaths of dozens and dozens of kids every year selling marijuana at your altar of prohibition?”

While the forcefulness of their arguments was unexpected, it makes sense that CPAC’s Republicans would support legalizing marijuana, given the party’s growing emphasis on limited government, federalism, and personal responsibility. The US government has spent upwards of $1 trillion on the War on Drugs over the past four decades with negligible results, amounting to a disastrous and racially charged boondoggle with enormous social costs. The potential unintended consequences of legalizing pot, libertarian Republicans argue, are outweighed by the danger of Big Government overreach and of wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on programs that don’t work.

“I've witnessed the government’s effort at trying to save us from ourselves, and it's still as easy for my 14-year-old to get drugs today as it was for me to get them 40 years ago,” said Ken Horst, a middle-aged Minnesota Republican who was one of the loudest hecklers at the CPAC panel. “What have [they] done with all that time and effort and money? We don't see any progress. It’s just another example of the government having 40 years to try to do something and prove it to us, and they didn't do it.”

“I don't see that the negatives are so great that if marijuana were legalized, society is going to go into the toilet and the Russians are going to take over,” he added.

Some Republican politicians have also started to soften their views, breaking with the GOP’s usual hard-line stance on drug policy and criminal justice. In a CPAC panel Friday, Governor Rick Perry of Texas followed up his recent support for decriminalizing marijuana with remarks on efforts to reform his state’s prison system. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has also tried to make criminal justice a signature issue, using part of his inaugural address this year to criticize the “failed war on drugs.” And Senator Rand Paul, who won this year’s CPAC straw poll, has said he thinks marijuana laws should be left to state and local governments.

The Republican shift on weed comes as more and more Americans are starting to embrace the idea of legalization. Colorado and Washington residents can already get high whenever they want, and Alaska and Oregon will vote on similar measures to legalize recreational use this year. Recent surveys show that about half of Americans—including 58 percent in this January Gallup poll—now support legalization, up from about 30 percent in 2000. Those numbers are even greater among young people: According to a new Pew Research Center study on millennials, 68 percent of people ages 18 to 33 support legalizing weed, up from 34 percent just eight years ago.

The issue has all of the makings of a culture-war blowout, pitting old-guard conservatives against a new cadre of young, more socially liberal conservatives. On one hand, the GOP is desperate to attract a younger crowd, a task the Pew report suggests is becoming increasingly difficult, as younger voters are overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex marriage, tend to support abortion rights, and think the government should provide more services. That leaves marijuana legalization as one of the few issues where Republicans actually have a shot at appealing to voters under 30. On the other hand, the dwindling opposition to weed remains concentrated among older Republicans, the party’s most reliable voter base.

What makes the marijuana issue interesting is that no real opposition has emerged from the GOP base. As the one-sided CPAC panel revealed, anti-drug conservatives—once a powerful Republican constituency—has largely disappeared. Marijuana legalization, it seems, may be the rare culture battle that the far right is willing to quietly lose.

"We don't really have any political allies," Beach told me quietly after the panel. "I think the Republican Party doesn't want to talk about it right now. They see where the tide is going, and they don't want to touch it.”

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