The conservative case for pot

Certainly, the Republican Party is a long way from becoming the Pot Party. Although a handful of conservative thinkers like Milton Friedman, George Shultz, and William F. Buckley have argued the merits of legalization over the years (Buckley even mocked those who called marijuana a gateway to addiction, saying it was “on the order of saying that every rapist began by masturbating”), most Republicans still oppose the idea. In the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, only 25 percent of Republicans nationwide favor legalization of pot in their state, compared with 55 percent of Democrats.

Nonetheless, conservative attitudes are changing at the grassroots level (no pun intended). The percentage of Republicans in favor of legalizing marijuana has risen quickly since 2005, jumping 7 points. And as their constituents have moved on the issue, more Republican candidates and lawmakers are refusing to toe the party line. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who was Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter during the “Just Say No” years, scoffs at the notion that marijuana leads to harder drugs. “Every person I’ve ever known to go onto harder drugs started with alcohol,” says Rohrabacher, who supports legalization from a state’s-rights perspective and is cosponsor of a bill to legalize hemp, the durable fiber derived from the same cannabis plant as pot. “Shall we balance the budget a bit? Quit this nanny-state idea that Americans can’t even grow a cash crop?”…

A popular joke has it that “a libertarian is a Republican who smokes pot.” That may or may not extend to the Tea Party, which is made up of several different conservative strands and includes many people, especially social conservatives, who would oppose legalization. The cofounder of the National Tea Party Federation, Mark Skoda, doubts that many in his group are pro-pot, saying, “Legalization as a question isn’t what animates or motivates Tea Partiers.” Still, it’s becoming increasingly hard for conservative candidates and lawmakers to square libertarian Tea Party catchphrases like “fiscal responsibility” and “limited government” with the government’s war on drugs, especially when their constituents might prefer to see a war on joblessness. Marijuana arrests accounted for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States, with an American nabbed on marijuana charges every 37 seconds, as indicated by the FBI’s 2009 Uniform Crime Report. Yet 88 percent of the arrests were for possession, not sale or manufacture, which means that many more recreational users are getting snared than growers or dealers.