Marijuana Policy and Political Conservatism

On February 26, 2015, Washington, D.C. depenalized two ounces or less of marijuana for individuals 21 years-old and above to possess in public and to use in private settings, depending on lease agreement details about substance use. Marijuana cannot be used in the public or in coffee shops or bars. The use of marijuana or under the influence of marijuana, while operating heavy machinery, is still an offense that could lead to a suspension of your license. There are no coffee shops as in Amsterdam and no recreational dispensaries as in Colorado. Marijuana possession on federal lands is still a criminal act. The sale of marijuana is still a criminal offense, but a person could get marijuana if there is no exchange of goods and/or services.

D.C. residents voted to have a medical marijuana program in 1998. Bob Barr (R-GA) blocked Initiative-59 and the vote tallies of Initiative-59 from going public, but, after Court rulings removing the Barr’s medical marijuana blockage, Barr overturned the initiative for good in 2000. In May 2010, the DC Council approved of a medical marijuana bill, but it was not overturned or blocked, mainly due to the Democratically-controlled U.S. Congress not taking a stance against a landslide voter initiative that should have been implemented over ten years ago. In March of 2014, the D.C. Council approved of marijuana decriminalization, but, led aggressively by conservative Republican of Maryland Andy Harristhe Republican-controlled House passed a bill to stop D.C. decriminalization. In July 2014, D.C.’s marijuana decriminalization bill went into effect. In the 2014 elections, 70% of the D.C. residents voted for Initiative-71 to depenalize marijuana possession. Last December, again the House Republicans, mainly Harris, put a provision (Section 809) inside the budget bill stating that the D.C. Council is prohibited from using any Federal or D.C. funds “to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance.” The conservative House Republicans are not happy with the move forward and even threatened to arrest to  D.C. Council members and staffers for going along with the democratic process and the vote of the people in the District.

Even though conservative Republicans believe in states’ rights, free market principles, limited government, and personal responsibility, they abandon these core tenets of conservatism to favor a massive drug war. But, looking at conservative ideological principles, marijuana legalization would seem to be no problem. Howard Wooldridge, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, stated at a conference: “Prohibition is a nanny state, liberal idea that the government should protect you from your own stupidity. For conservatives, this should be their bread and butter. If these people would apply their conservative principles to the issue, they would all be on my side.”

The conservatives favor a $26 billion federal drug war, along with another approximately $25 billion at the local and state level. Around 56% of the drug war fund is called supply-side spending or spending on law enforcement, gathering intelligence, interdiction, and eradication of plants and labs. Sadly, they, along with Democratic members as well, did not get the memo that the prohibition of substances does not work. We tried in the 1920’s with alcohol and it failed, which the law was repealed 13 years later after a wide range of negative effects. Famous social critic, H.L. Mencken, summed up in 1925 the disastrous results of alcohol prohibition: “Prohibition has not only failed in its promises but actually created additional serious and disturbing social problems throughout society. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more. … The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.” Substances will always be in our society with any sort of regulatory framework. Drug use and abuse will always be there. Prohibition and the current war on drugs did not eliminate substance use and abuse.

Generally, it seems that conservatives are against drug policy reform and marijuana legalization. But there are some groups and certain demographics that favor these certain policy reforms. Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) is a nonprofit organization advocating for marijuana reform. There are conservative and libertarian economists, politicians, journalists, religious leaders, and nonprofit executives who are against marijuana prohibition such as: Economists Milton Freedman and Jeffry Miron, William F. Buckley, Jr. (established the National Review), Rich Lowry (editor of the National Review), Michelle Malkin, Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas), Former Governor Gary Johnson (R-New Mexico, he left the Republican Party to join the Libertarian Party in 2011, and currently CEO of Cannabis Sativa, Inc.), Senator Ran Paul (R-Kentucky), Congressman Dana Rohrbacher (R-California), Former Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado),  Former Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas), Evangelist Pat Robertson, Mike Collins (former prosecutor and national spokesman for Republican National Committee), and Grover Norquist (founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform and member of Council on Foreign Relations). Libertarian Republicans are more willing to be in favor of legalization because of personal liberty and economic issues, but conservative Republicans are less willing to be in favor of it since they hold the principles of law and order and conservative morals.

According to Pew Research, nearly seventy percent of Americans believed alcohol use is more harmful to personal health than marijuana use. The support for legalization increased from twelve percent in 1969 at the height of the countercultural movement to fifty-four percent in 2014. In comparison to Democratic and Independent survey takers, Republicans are more likely to believe marijuana is harmful for society and personal health than alcohol, to favor prosecuting illegal drug usersto favor jail time for small amounts of marijuana possession, to favor mandatory drug sentencing policies, and to favor marijuana prohibition. Historical events such as Nixon’s “War on Crime” and Reagan’s “War on Drugs”, the stance of conservative politicians such as Barr and Harris to block D.C. drug policy initiatives and former Congressman Mark Souder (R-Indiana) who sponsored legislation to eliminate federal education funds for those who are convicted of drug offenses, and nonprofit conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation (see here and here) are well-known examples of conservatives taking a stance against drug policy reform.

Conservative Republicans favor a massive taxpayer funded drug war budget, intervening in the democratic process to override, defund, or black widely accepted drug legislation, ignoring voter rights and states’ rights, and abandoning free market principles in favor of prohibiting drug use. The criminalization and sigmatization of drug use does not deal with the root causes of drug use, abuse, misuse, and dependency. We need to develop a policy to live with drugs rather than try to ignore and live without them. Drugs and drug use, in some form, will always be around, it will never go away entirely. Our nation has to address substance use in its proper terms as a public-health issue rather than a moral, personal liberty, economic, or criminal issue.

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