Over the last couple of days, I’ve argued that the White House has begun to set up another “evolution” on a social issue that plays strongly among younger voters — marijuana legalization — and that Republicans would likely have to keep pace with the change. Count Rick Perry as one getting ahead of the curve. Perry told the World Economic Forum in Davos that he opposes legalization in Texas, but he wants to start moving toward decriminalization — and that he fully supports a federalist approach in letting states make those decisions. The Daily Beast’s Ben Jacobs wonders whether his “liberal stance” will make him stronger for a 2016 bid for the GOP presidential nomination:

Well, he isn’t for legalizing the drug but the Governor of Texas, in the rather un-Texan setting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, endorsed taking steps towards decriminalizing cannabis possession on Thursday.

In a panel at the prestigious forum, Perry said: “What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade.”

In a statement to the San Antonio Express-News, Lucy Nashed, a Perry spokeswoman attempted to clarify the governor’s position. “Legalization is no penalty at all whereas decriminalization doesn’t necessarily mean jail time (for minor possession offenses),” she said. “It means more of a fine or counseling or some sort of program where you don’t end up in jail but in a rehabilitative program.”

The headline states, “Rick Perry mellows on pot.” Well, decriminalization might be a mellower position than Perry’s previous stance, but not by a whole lot, I’d guess.  Perry himself noted that during his tenure as governor, the emphasis on enforcement has shifted over the past thirteen years of his tenure.  Most states have already “decriminalized” simple possession to a low-ranking misdemeanor with a fine. Dealing is another matter, of course, but most jurisdictions have found that the cost of jailing people for simple possession is far costlier than its deterrent value, and that the better approach to this prohibition is at least some attempt at counseling and rehabilitation rather than housing people for what they do to themselves. And in some jurisdictions, that “mellowing” on simple possession and use isn’t limited to marijuana, either.

On the other hand, this gets right into Perry’s federalist wheelhouse. In his speech, he also noted that what works for Colorado won’t necessarily work for Texas, and vice versa:

“But,” he continued, “the point is that after 40 years of the war on drugs, I can’t change what happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade. So I think there’s some innovation that goes on in the states that can translate not just to Oklahoma or California or New York, but to Switzerland, to France, to other countries that have this drug issue facing them, that there are some alternatives without going that big full step and decriminalizing and sending a message to people that it’s OK.”

The federalist message will sell with libertarian-minded Republicans, but will that alienate social conservatives that mostly support Perry? Peter Weber at The Week says yes:

Let’s look at the polls: An October 2013 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, a number that drops to 35 percent when you look at just Republicans. Similarly, in an April 2013 Pew poll that found 52 percent support for legalizing weed, only 37 percent of GOP voters (29 percent of conservative Republicans) and 33 percent of voter 65 and older were on board. In a January poll from CNN/ORC International, 55 percent backed legalizing pot, but only 36 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of voters in the South agreed.

Maybe Perry’s talk of easing up on the war on pot will appeal to the younger, libertarian-leaning Republicans who formed the backbone of the Ron Paul Revolution — but they already have a candidate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Perry is hardly libertarian on social issues. As GOP strategist Ford O’Connell says at U.S. News, “the growing ‘conser-tarian’ movement… will find much to like, although some to dislike, in Perry’s agenda.”

More to the point, look at who voted in the 2012 GOP primaries: Old (white) people, mostly. “In 12 of the 16 states where exit polls have been conducted,” said National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein in March 2012, “voters over 50 cast at least 60 percent of the GOP primary votes; in the other four, they represented at least 55 percent of the vote.” In Florida and Nevada, more than 70 percent of the GOP primary electorate was AARP-eligible.

It’s true that a majority of Americans now appear to back legalizing marijuana, but Perry can’t try to win their vote until he gets through the Republican primary. And even if he did win the nomination, he still needs older voters to back him in large numbers: In 2012, Romney won 52 percent of voters age 50 to 64 and 56 percent of the 65+ demographic. These are the only cohorts that don’t support marijuana legalization.

Yes, but that assumes marijuana prohibition occupies the same priority level as, say, abortion. It doesn’t, though. While social conservatives (and some progressives) still oppose legalization for the signals of moral approval it sends, it’s not likely to be a make-or-break issue, even in a Republican primary. We do see some single-issue voters on abortion, but I’m unaware of any on pot, especially since until very recently both parties wanted to maintain the government prohibition on it. And since decriminalization is a process that has been ongoing for a couple of decades, it’s hardly radical enough to be a last-straw issue, even in Republican primaries and caucuses in deeply conservative states.

The issue here isn’t moral signals, but political signals. Marijuana is about the only issue left that will energize college-age and graduate voters, especially now that they’re getting a good look at the costs associated with ObamaCare. Perry’s approach is a good model for Republicans — defuse the issue with both a not-total-legalization policy married to federalism that gets Washington out of the mix on the issue. That’s enough to dilute the impact of the inevitable “evolution” that will come later this year when Democrats get desperate for campaign energy.

Update: Again via Peter, a colleague of mine at The Week, Pew’s numbers from last April offer some reason why Perry’s federalism is unlikely to cost him votes. While Republicans strongly opposed legalization 60/37, an almost equal majority (57/40) wants the federal government to butt out.