Why Members of the Right Should Embrace Marijuana Legalization
Republicans looking for a winning issue with broad crossover appeal in 2020 and beyond need look no further than the federal legalization of medicinal cannabis. Depending on which poll you look at, somewhere between 60 and 66 percent of Americans favor full legalization of marijuana on the federal level, up from roughly 57 percent two years ago and roughly 51 percent five years ago. Nearly 90% of Americans live in an area in which either medicinal or recreational cannabis is available; ten states and the District of Columbia have fully legalized cannabis use in recent years, and another 36 states have allowed various forms of medical cannabis use. Two bills currently working their way through Congress, the STATES Act and the SAFE Banking Act, will, if passed, protect state-legal cannabis companies from federal interference and provide these companies with critical access to U.S. banking and credit card processing services, respectively. As numerous lawmakers and industry leaders have reiterated over the last year, the genie that is the cannabis movement in the U.S. is not going back into the bottle, and the federal government must now transition from a mindset of deliberate indifference to the emerging cannabis space to the implementation of long-overdue policy reforms to keep up with the budding marketplace.
With bellwether presidential battleground states like Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania now supporting state-legal medical and/or recreational marijuana programs, it has become too politically inopportune for Republican lawmakers and voters to ignore this issue any longer. Politically, contravening cannabis reform flies in the face of one of the foundational principles of the Republican Party: the sanctity of states’ rights. Voters in each of the states that have legalized cannabis have signaled their acceptance of the issue, but the federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic. This divergence between state and federal law must be reconciled by Congress, and Republican voters and lawmakers should throw their full support behind the STATES Act, which will re-enforce and restore the principles of states’ rights by removing the applicability of the Controlled Substances Act from lawful cannabis activities within each state. On a purely human level, medical cannabis has been transformative for so many with serious medical conditions, based at least in part on its nature as a non-addictive replacement to opiates. Simply put, cannabis reform and/or legalization has never been closer and should be a signature conservative issue. Republicans must embrace it, both for its immediate tangible benefits for the country and, perhaps more cynically, for their own political gain.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in September 2018 found that 69 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of left-leaning Independents support legalizing cannabis. Fifty-four percent of right-leaning Independents also support legalization. Among major age groups, Millennials are most in support of legalization (74 percent), while majorities of Gen Xers (63 percent) and baby boomers (54 percent) are also on board. Legalization still fails to enjoy majority support among two major groups: the so-called “silent generation,” or those born between 1928 and 1945 (39 percent), and self-identified Republicans (45 percent). It is worth noting, however, that support for legalization has increased among both groups in recent years.
Lesser support for legalization among older Americans is at least somewhat intuitively understandable; that generation came of age before the drug-soaked 1960s-era counterculture upended “traditional” American values and ushered in a more liberal, permissive mainstream culture. But lesser support among Republicans, and particularly younger Republicans, is not only odd, but also misguided; the full federal legalization of cannabis would represent a major victory for conservatives, especially under a Republican president.
For starters, legalizing cannabis and implementing a moderate federal tax on sales could help the country, however slightly, pay down its national debt and help bolster the budgets of important infrastructure, health and educational initiatives. Of course, the key word there is “moderate;” high excise taxes in states like California have kept regular cannabis users from embracing the legal marketplace and have helped to ensure the continued strength of the black market. A study conducted by New Frontier Data last year found that full federal legalization and a resultant tax on cannabis could bring in $132 billion in revenue and create more than one million jobs over a decade. Of course, calling for a new federal tax, on anything, hardly seems like a solidly conservative proposition. But at a time when both Republicans and Democrats alike have abandoned all pretense of ever working to reduce our national debt, it is more important than ever to find additional sources of revenue for federal and state budgets.
No less crucially, legalizing cannabis could free up federal and state law enforcement agencies and judiciaries to focus on more serious and imminent threats to our public safety and security. For decades, the United States has locked up millions of Americans (and most tragically, a vastly disproportionate number of African-Americans and people of color) for victimless and benign “crimes” like possession of marijuana. Happily, Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump have, after decades of inaction, instituted important legislation like the First Step Act that will begin to right the wrongs of the past, and it is critical that Republicans continue to lead on this issue. The United States currently faces far more serious and sophisticated threats to its security and prosperity in this young century. It is time to direct our law enforcement services and judicial resources to the areas that most require them.
It is also time to retire the traditionally conservative argument that legalizing cannabis would further erode American values. It is, in fact, the exact opposite; legalizing cannabis would help cement the bedrock American value of freedom from governmental intrusion in daily life, as well as help to remove the responsibility for education on marijuana issues from law enforcement and society and place it where it belongs, on the individual and, perhaps most importantly, on the American parent. There are many serious daily challenges to American values: the rise of tribal politics, the loss of confidence in our institutions, and the vast, divisive, and unchecked power of technological influence are only but a few of them. Responsible cannabis use is simply not among them.
For Republican supporters of cannabis reform, there are some reasons to be optimistic. The SAFE Banking Act, which enjoys broad bipartisan support in Congress and has been endorsed by 38 state attorneys general, passed a key vote in the House Financial Services Committee in March. I predict the legislation will be approved by the full Congress and signed by President Trump by Independence Day; the new law would finally provide state-legal cannabis businesses critical access to our country’s financial system.
At the same time, several former Republican lawmakers have accepted positions at cannabis companies and are working behind the scenes to erase the conservative stigma surrounding cannabis, which former Rep. Carlos Curbelo recently called “very strong.” Curbelo, now a strategic adviser for the Cannabis Trade Federation, and former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, now an advisory board member at BudTrader, had each worked on cannabis issues during their time in Congress. In April 2018, former House Speaker John Boehner, an opponent of cannabis reform while in Congress, joined the board of Acreage Holdings and has begun lobbying on the issue. Cynics might question the motivation behind these former lawmakers’ advocacy efforts; but more likely, they’ve simply recognized the drastic shift in Americans’ beliefs about cannabis and the nationwide call for reform.
The United States is currently grappling with serious ideological and political questions, many of which feature divergent paths forward. As it has since its founding, the country will continue to make critical decisions about its identity, purpose, and policy; but now, it often seems as if each side is dug in more resolutely than ever before. The legalization of cannabis appears to be one issue with the potential to bridge the widening gulf between Republicans and Democrats, between progressives and conservatives, between Right and Left. It is time for all Americans to embrace it, for the good of the country.