While there was certainly discussion about building walls to keep out illegal immigrants, protecting Second Amendment rights and religious freedoms, and imprisoning presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, reforming marijuana laws wasn’t on the scheduled agenda at last week’s GOP Convention. Despite the RNC deciding not to adopt the issue into its platform for this year’s election cycle, there are still many Republicans advocating for the legalization of the most commonly used illegal drug in the country.
“While there was recently a spirited debate about medical marijuana’s inclusion on the Republican Party platform, this effort was eventually shelved,” said Aaron Kall, director of Debate at the University of Michigan. “Republican delegates expressed some concerns about the medical benefits of marijuana, while simultaneously being worried about potential side effects. Republican delegates often hold more conservative views than the average Republican voter.”
Unlike the Libertarian Party and Democratic Party, the GOP has traditionally shied away from marijuana reform — probably a result of its lingering War on Drugs campaign. Some leaders in the party have urged to uphold existing federal laws banning the substance, others have argued for the legalization of the drug as a way to advocate for criminal justice reform.
“The Republican Party has usually been considered the socially conservative party,” said Hunter White, communications director at Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP). “I was not surprised to see that legalization did not make it onto the platform. The ghost of Nancy Reagan still haunts the older Republicans who have a large influence on the party platform — and that means all they can think of is ‘Just Say No.’”
Despite the establishment’s efforts to block marijuana legalization from the agenda, Republicans in general are showing increased support for reform. The latest research from YouGov revealed that Republicans narrowly back the legalization of marijuana, 45 percent to 42 percent opposing. While this may seem like a step closer to advancing the party’s views on cannabis, their broader beliefs toward the plant haven’t changed much — marijuana as a gateway drug, for example.
“Another reason why legalization hasn’t made it on the platform is the lack of vocal people in the committees that actually draft the platform,” White said. “If no one is there to bring up the issue, or argue and persuade others to put it on the platform, it simply won’t get done.”
As state parties continue advocating for the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes, the RNC will have to address the issue in one way or another. “Unfortunately, this is a particularly bad year for social issues,” he said. But there are also some Republicans who believe there’s something behind the medical cannabis initiative.
“Some delegates expressed a concern that liberal donors and activists were behind the drive to legalize medical marijuana,” Kall said. “Historically, Republican ideology believes strongly in the concept of federalism and that issues like marijuana legalization should be left up to individual states, and, hence, is not a federal issue.”
As for the Republican presidential nominee, he has previously come out in support of medical marijuana, but his lack of enthusiasm may be the result of resistance from within his party. “Trump’s general position on marijuana legalization has been equivocal to date and not prominently part of his campaign message,” Kall said. “Given this and the sharp divide about marijuana among the Republican delegates, this subject hasn’t received much attention at the convention to and this will likely remain the case moving forward.”
The nomination of Donald Trump as their party’s candidate for POTUS signifies an extreme shift to the right in social policies for Republicans. “The national GOP is trying to reassure evangelicals that their social politics still make up the values of the party,” White said. “Unfortunately, the downside to this is any kind of socially progressive policy, even one that is supported by the super majority of Americans had no chance of making it on the platform if it didn’t fit a very particularly social conservative mold.” And with Trump tapping Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his vice president running mate, Republicans in support of marijuana reform are less likely to see any changes to the RNC’s position on the issue anytime soon.
“He is an ardent opponent of marijuana reform, and basically every social issue,” White said. “However, he balances Trump on every single social issue that the evangelicals care about.”