Pot Matters: Marijuana and the Grand Old Party

The latest Republican presidential debate included some discussion of marijuana legalization.

Chris Christie is against it; Rand Paul is for it; Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina want to increase funding and attention to drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration; and many candidates have expressed their support for states’ rights to have different policies than the federal government.

Supporters of marijuana legalization approve and appreciate Paul’s positions on drug policy reform, as well as the support for legalization provided by libertarians now and consistently in the past.

For many in the media, the discussion during the debate suggested that Republicans are warming to the idea of state level legalization. For example, MSNBC published a piece entitled, “GOPers open the door to legal marijuana.” Reason.com has a piece focusing on how Chris Christie remains the only candidate outright opposed to legalization, promising to apply federal law in Colorado and other legalized states.

All in all, Republicans are being portrayed as embracing a policy of benign neglect toward marijuana reform. Hands-off, not a priority, got better things to do… Frankly, this is also the policy of many Democrats.

Nonetheless, there are great differences in how the two major parties view marijuana and its legalization.

The Democrats, regardless of their past behavior and policy positions, are largely supportive and responsive to the demographic groups most affected by marijuana prohibition—young people and minorities. Republicans, despite their libertarian sympathies, are largely supportive of older, white and affluent voters with a strong historical bias toward supporting law enforcement.

There is not a whole lot that Republicans can do at the national level about state-level marijuana legalization. Furthermore, they have other priorities—such as a political civil war between true-blood conservatives and the party’s political establishment. Even so, there is a deceptive ingenuity to the positions of most Republicans (and yes, some Democrats).

It’s the old canard that while marijuana should remain against the law, no one should really go to jail for its use, and the government should invest more in treatment and education to respond to drug abuse. This dodge has been around since the first Bush presidency and has been part of the National Drug Control Strategy ever since.

Rand Paul is genuinely different from his Republican colleagues on the marijuana issue. Indeed, he may be a leading indicator of change in the Grand Old Party.

Historically, though, this party has been focused on sending people to jail for marijuana and other drug use, and just as important, sending people to jail for growing and selling marijuana.

Once you get past the sensible positions of Paul and the old school rhetoric of Christie, the warm and fuzzy comments of other Republican candidates is all about changing the subject from jailing marijuana users to funding drug treatment programs—as if it is appropriate to arrest people for pot and force them into drug treatment.

Even when their rhetoric suggests accepting state-level legalization (because they really can’t do anything about it), there is still the matter of message sending.

Consider Fiorina’s comment that “we are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It’s not.”

This is true, but not in the way she means. It’s actually safer than having a beer, but for Fiorina and many Republicans, marijuana remains a dangerous drug that deserves extraordinary treatment in order to protect society from its dangers.

It can’t be emphasized enough that Paul represents a different approach to drug policy than his fellow Republicans.

But the rest of the GOP has the same attitude about marijuana that they have had for years. They don’t want to be perceived as supporting large scale arrests, so they dodge the issue and talk about treatment. But when they get into office, they support law enforcement and anti-pot propaganda programs that justify arrests and other extraordinary measures to punish people for using, growing and selling marijuana.

The Grand Old Party has a lot of problems these days.

It’s getting harder and harder for them to retain power, and their ranks are rife with internal divisions. When it comes to marijuana though, it’s really the same old tune. Their music, however, is rapidly losing its swing.

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