2017-12-24 19:59:14 UTC
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At a recent marijuana reform conference in Washington, DC, Rep. Tom
Garrett, a freshman Republican congressman from Virginia, told a room
full of cannabis activists that their beloved plant meant nothing to him.
'I don't care about marijuana. What I do care about is liberty, justice,
and economic opportunity.
Rep. Tom Garrett, (R-Virginia)
“I really don’t care about marijuana,” he declared.
No surprise there. Garrett, a former state prosecutor and winner of the
American Conservative Union’s “Defender of Liberty” award, would never
be mistaken for an avid dabber.
But then Garrett, 45, reversed course.
“What I do care about,” he said, “is individual liberty. What I do care
about is justice. What I do care about is economic opportunity.”
And that, he said, is why six months ago he introduced HR 1227, the
Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017. Garrett’s bill would
do just what its title says: remove cannabis from the federal list of
controlled substances entirely and allow states to regulate it as they
A generation ago, Garrett’s position would have been almost unimaginable
for a conservative politician. At best he would have been treated as a
harmless, eccentric outlier, a Ron Paul for millennials. At worst he
might have been scorned by his own party.
Freedom Caucus member Rep. Thomas Garrett, (R-VA), right, with Rep. Mark
Meadows, (R-SC) speaks to reporters during a news conference in
Washington, DC, on Wednesday, July 19, 2017, calling on the House to
repeal the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
But today Garrett is a rising star in conservative circles. And his
public embrace of legalization is hardly eccentric. Garrett, along with
Republican colleagues like Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Thomas Massie
(R-KY), Justin Amash (R-MI), and Matt Gaetz (R-FL), have positioned
cannabis legalization as an issue aligned with their core conservative
values—and their outspokenness is allowing many fellow conservatives to
rethink their long-held opposition to the issue.
Consider these signs of change:
Republican support doubled. Earlier this week, a Gallup poll found that
51% of Republicans now support cannabis legalization—the first time that
support has crossed into a majority. Among Republicans, that’s a
whopping 9-point jump from 2016 and a doubling of support since 2010.
Orrin Hatch changed his mind. Hatch, the ancient senator who serves
Utah, one of America’s most conservative states, came out as a medical
marijuana advocate in dramatic fashion, giving a passionate defense of
cannabis research and medicine on the Senate floor last month.
Some conservatives are framing this as their issue. In September,
right-wing Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a longtime MMJ defender, wrote
a Washington Post op-ed titled “My Fellow Conservatives Should Protect
Medical Marijuana From the Government.”
In red states, conservatives are pushing medical marijuana bills. Around
the nation, conservative legislators are introducing medical cannabis
legalization measures. In Georgia, Republican state Rep. Allen Peake led
the passage of the state’s first CBD oil law last year. Indiana’s first
medical marijuana bill was introduced earlier this year by Republican
state Rep. Jim Lucas, whose voting record scores 92% from the American
Conservative Union and 100% from the National Rifle Association.
Those events came nearly a year after the surprising results of the
November 2016 election. A data dive by Leafly shortly after that
historic vote found that conservative Trump voters in historically red
states and counties—places like North Dakota, Arkansas, and Florida—cast
their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of medical marijuana legalization.
As they have been for years, voters were ahead of politicians when it
came to cannabis. Even conservative voters.
Data Dive: Legalization No Longer a Partisan Issue, Election Data Show
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Dana Rohrabacher's right-wing bona fides allowed him to pull a
Nixon-to-China move on legalization.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), left, speaks next to California Lt. Gov.
Gavin Newsom at a news conference in support of the Adult Use of
Marijuana Act ballot measure in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 4, 2016.
Seven years ago, legalization was largely a blue issue. A 2010 Newsweek
poll found that 55% of Democrats supported state adult-use legalization,
while 72% of Republicans opposed it. In late 2017, a Gallup poll found
that Democratic support topped 72%, while Republican support had moved
from the mid-20s to 51%.
Seven years ago, 72% of Republicans opposed marijuana legalization.
Today, 51% support it.
That happened in part because legalization is moving into the mainstream
of conservative thought. More to the point, it’s moving into the
mainstream of young conservative thought. Rising Republican leaders like
Tom Garrett aren’t advocating in favor of legalization despite their
conservative values. They’re embracing the issue because of them.
One of the main tenets of modern conservatism, Garrett says, is the idea
that “people who aren’t hurting other people should be left alone.” And
cannabis is not hurting people. “I refuse to concede that the
recreational user is hurting anybody,” he says.
Republican support is up 9% in less than a year. Source: Gallup Poll.
There have always been rare conservative gadflies speaking up for
legalization. Economist Milton Friedman was for it. William F. Buckley
infamously sparked up on his sailboat beyond the territorial limit of
federal law. But their positions often came off as theoretical and
symbolic, not anything they’d fight for on the ground.
Legalization’s blue tinge wasn’t merely a perception issue. It was
reality. When Rolling Stone profiled The 10 Best Politicians on Pot
Reform in 2010, only two Republicans made the list—Dana Rohrabacher and
So what changed? Many factors:
Public opinion shifted. Medical marijuana is now “more popular than the
4th of July,” as national political strategist Celinda Lake said
recently. The latest Quinnipiac poll has 94% of Americans in favor of
legal medical marijuana.
Legal states didn’t implode. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada
went fully legal and did not implode in a miasma of cannabis addiction.
In fact, those states enjoyed booming economies, an influx of talent,
and healthy populations. Legal states proved that adults could handle
legal, well-regulated cannabis.
Voting data opened eyes. As Leafly documented last year, conservative
Republican states—North Dakota, Arkansas—swung hard for legal medical
marijuana in November 2016. Deeply conservative counties in the critical
swing state of Florida did, too.
Military veterans spoke out for medical marijuana. It was easy for
conservatives to dismiss legalization pleas when they came from hippies.
But when combat veterans spoke up, conservatives listened. Veterans said
it helped them manage their PTSD, reduced their need for opioids, and
saved their lives.
More patients told their stories. Parents, relatives, and older friends
became more comfortable talking about how medical marijuana helped them.
That’s how Sen. Orrin Hatch’s mind changed on medical cannabis.
Conservatives got hip to the internet, where they could easily access
real, accurate information—not just federal nonsense—about cannabis and
Old people died. To put it bluntly. Many of the oldest Americans, 77% of
whom were against legalization (according to a 2010 Newsweek poll) and
unlikely to change their minds, exited to the great beyond. Baby
boomers, who are much more comfortable with cannabis, aged into the
oldest voting demographic.
Young conservatives gained more power. Younger conservative voters—for
whom legal medical marijuana was normal, no big deal—entered their 20s
and 30s, and increasingly expressed their opinions on marijuana at the
Data Dive: Legalization No Longer a Partisan Issue, Election Data Show
The Pioneer: Dana Rohrabacher
The cornerstone of the conservative legalization movement has been, and
continues to be, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. In the late
1990s, when powerful Republicans like Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. George
Voinovich (R-OH), and Rep. Robert Barr (R-GA) howled against the passage
of state medical marijuana laws, Rohrabacher, a conservative true
believer from Orange County, chose a different path.
Rohrabacher: Re-elected after coming out for medical marijuana in 1999.
Though his own district overwhelmingly opposed California’s 1996 Prop.
215 (which legalized medical marijuana), Rohrabacher opted to vote
against a non-binding Congressional resolution opposing medical cannabis
Instead, he went on the record for medical marijuana. The following year
he stood for re-election. And he won.
By getting re-elected after publicly embracing legalization, Rohrabacher
showed that cannabis wasn't a career killer.
Immunized by his connections to President Ronald Reagan (for whom
Rohrabacher worked as a speechwriter) and his reputation as a right-wing
cowboy, Rohrabacher stood on solid conservative ground when he argued
that the federal government should leave his state, and its MMJ
patients, the hell alone. It was a classic Nixon-to-China move.
By retaining his seat every two years, Rohrabacher proved that
legalization wasn’t a career-killer for conservatives. In 2002, he
introduced the first Congressional resolution to grant state medical
marijuana programs protection from federal prosecution. Twelve years
later it finally passed, with bipartisan support, as the
Rohrabacher–Farr budget amendment.
Rohrabacher was in the writer’s room when Reagan’s toughest war-on-drugs
speeches were crafted in the 1980s. Today, he’s on Capitol Hill fighting
to protect cannabis legalization in 29 states. Say what you will about
his other views and his current Russian troubles. On cannabis
legalization, Rohrabacher has been a courageous leader for nearly two
decades. He’s a bridge between generations. Without him there would be
no Tom Garrett, no Allen Peake, and no Matt Gaetz.
We Speak with Rep. Allen Peake, Georgia’s Medical Cannabis Bulldog
The New Normal: ‘Conservative Outreach Director’
I don’t want to overstate the claim. Things are changing, but more
Democrats than Republicans favor legalization—among both voters and
elected officials. Conservatives like Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Rep.
Andy Harris (R-MD), and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) remain dead set
against state legalization, and they are currently blocking legislation
to allow cannabis banking, legal regulation in the District of Columbia,
and medical marijuana protections, respectively.
But so many conservative votes have turned in favor of cannabis—or at
least appear to be up for grabs—that one of the nation’s leading
legalization advocacy groups employs a full-time lobbyist to focus on
conservative outreach. When Congress is in session, Don Murphy prowls
the halls of the Senate and House office buildings, seeking to create
Republican allies on behalf of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
“If Republicans think they’re going to be defeated at the polls because
of this issue, that’s the opposite of my experience,” Murphy told me
recently. “I talk to lawmakers about legalization in terms of its
consistency with their positions. You may not be for medical marijuana,
but do you really think patients should lose their gun rights over it?”
MPP’s Don Murphy, campaigning for Florida’s Amendment 2 in 2016: ‘This
issue won’t defeat you.’
Twenty-three years ago, Murphy ran for the Maryland Legislature as a
law-and-order Republican. “My wife had been held up in an armed
robbery,” he explained. “I ended up on a House judiciary committee, and
I was voting to lock up everybody.”
One conversation opened his mind. “I had a guy come to me in the
Legislature. He was a former Green Beret and a local farmer. He told me
he was using marijuana with a doctor’s approval for non-Hodgkin’s
lymphoma. It was helping him eat, and he was finally gaining weight. He
asked me: ‘Do you think I’m a criminal?’ ‘Of course not,’ I said. ‘The
law does,’ he told me. That’s when I thought, well, he’s got a point.”
“That’s how I became the accidental advocate.”
Murphy eventually connected with officials at the Marijuana Policy
Project, liked what they did, and talked himself into a job as the
group’s director of conservative outreach. In that role, he’s helping
shape the conservative conversation around cannabis.
Talking the Talk
When it comes to reaching conservatives, language and framing can make
all the difference. Some conservative leaders, Murphy says, “are 10th
Amendment people.” They’re states’ rights supporters who might agree
that each state should be allowed to handle cannabis as it sees fit.
(The 10th Amendment to the US Constitution is the “reserved powers”
clause, which holds that “powers not delegated to the United States by
the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to
the States respectively, or to the people.”)
It's hard to argue for states' rights, and stand against legal
“South Carolina, their House members are strong 10th Amendment people,”
Murphy told me.
The call of liberty also resounds well with many conservatives on
Capitol Hill, who agree with Murphy in principle but may not want to be
seen supporting marijuana because of its lingering cultural taint.
“I spoke with one member, who flies the Gadsden flag”—the Don’t Tread on
Me rattlesnake—“outside his door and asked, ‘How come you’re not so good
when it comes to drug policy?’ He answered me, ‘You keep doing what
you’re doing, and I won’t get in your way.’”
A lot of his work, Murphy says, consists of showing how legalization
embodies a conservative’s existing values and beliefs about freedom. “If
this, then why not that?” he often asks Republicans.
Personal Stories Open Minds
Ann Lee, the 87-year-old founder of Republicans Against Marijuana
Prohibition (RAMP), is a Texas conservative who spent most of her life
assuming that “the lies the government put out” about cannabis were true.
People are often surprised to hear that 27% of NORML members identify as
Then in 1990, her son Richard was injured in an accident and found that
cannabis helped him recover. She saw with her own eyes that it was true.
Richard Lee went on to create Oaksterdam University, the groundbreaking
cannabis educational institution in Oakland, California. Ann created her
own group, RAMP, in 2012.
Leafly contributor Katie Matlack profiled Ann Lee last year. She wrote:
For Lee, the tipping point came in 2012, shortly after she and her
husband attended a five-person NORML panel and realized three of the
five panelists were Republicans. The next day, she founded RAMP. “We
modeled ourselves after Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,” she said.
Ann Lee: Her own son’s experience changed her mind.
That surprise is not uncommon among those who attend a NORML event. I
experienced it myself at the group’s Washington, DC, conference in
September, when NORML Political Director Justin Strekal revealed that
27% of the group’s members identified as conservative Republicans (38%
are progressive Democrats, and 35% identify as independents).
In his lobbying work, Strekal has learned how to speak the language of
both progressives and conservatives to reach them on the issue of
cannabis. For progressives, it’s often an issue of social justice and
racial disparities in enforcement. For conservatives, it touches the
values of freedom and liberty.
“This is an issue of freedom,” Strekal says. “It’s about freedom from
government overreach. Who decides what we can and can’t ingest in the
privacy of our own homes?”
Meet Ann Lee, the Texas Republican Calling for Legalization in Cleveland
The Cannabis Business is Business
It’s hard to tell where Bruce Nassau falls on the political spectrum.
Maybe that’s why he’s such a good entrepreneur. Nassau, the owner of
Colorado-based TruCannabis, is also the head of the Marijuana Industry
Group, a leading cannabis industry advocacy organization. Before he got
into cannabis, Nassau made a small fortune in the cable television
industry. Now he spends much of his time talking to policymakers about
“I find that many conservatives are very easy to work with once you sit
down and talk face to face,” he says. “They begin to realize that you
don’t have five eyes. They see that you’re a human being, you have
concerns for public safety, patients, and children.”
'We create jobs,' says Bruce Nassau. 'We create opportunity.' That's an
idea most conservatives can get behind.
Nassau approaches the issue as an entrepreneur, so jobs are one of his
favorite talking points. “We create jobs,” he says. “We create opportunity.”
That’s an idea conservative leaders can get behind. A 2016 Leafly
investigation found that nearly 120,000 American jobs were supported by
legal cannabis. By 2017 that figure had jumped to 149,000.
The cannabis industry acts as its own skills-training program, Nassau adds.
“We bring in a lot of people to work for us who might not typically be
interested in working in other industries,” he says. “There are plenty
of people who identify as countercultural, who don’t consider themselves
traditional businesspeople. They might be turned off by the idea of
working at the Home Depot or Macy’s. But when they work for us, they
learn customer service skills, they learn how to operate a cash
register, they learn how important a supply chain is. Pretty soon
they’re skilled employees who have the ability to work where they want,
live productive lives, and pay taxes.”
In legal states like Washington, Colorado, and Oregon, young budtenders
and cannabis growers are gaining skills and experience, then going out
on their own and creating their own businesses.
“That,” says Nassau, “goes to the heart of a conservative’s values.”
Cannabis Jobs Count: Legal Marijuana Supports 149,304 Americans
More Support Is Hiding, Waiting
Tom Garrett believes there’s more conservative support for cannabis
reform out there, just waiting for the water to warm up. “Of the 435
votes in Congress, we’d probably have 235 in favor of getting the
federal government out of the the marijuana scheduling business—if it
got to the floor,” he says.
'The fight now is in the back rooms. The fight is to get a hearing and
get it to the floor.'
Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Virginia
“The fight is in the back rooms,” he adds. “The fight is to get a
hearing. There are a series of gatekeepers,” he says, referring to the
House committee chairs who, because those positions are often
seniority-based, tend to be members of the older, anti-legalization
generation. “And we need to bring political pressure to the gatekeepers.”mcc
Even some of those who publicly oppose legalization acknowledge the sea
change that’s underway. During a lobbying event in September, NORML
Political Director Justin Strekal ran into Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in
the Russell Senate Office Building. McCain asked about the funny-looking
lapel pin on Strekal’s jacket. “That’s a cannabis leaf, senator,”
Strekal said, and gave his best pitch for the reform measures now
circulating on Capitol Hill.
McCain, an old-school prohibitionist who has remained mostly silent on
cannabis reform, smiled and parted amicably.
“Well,” said the senator, “you folks are winning.”
On Legalization’s 5th Anniversary, Here’s What We’ve Learned
(Featured photo at top: Jae C. Hong/AP)
Bruce is Leafly’s deputy editor. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of
Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.