Seems the movement to legalize marijuana isn’t just for hippies anymore.
Last month in the nation’s capital, Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico and outspoken critic of big government, took the podium at Glenn Beck’s 9/12 rally to talk up economic issues. He warmed up the crowd of tea partiers with tales of how he’d fended off unnecessary state spending through liberal use of the veto stamp, and how he’d boosted educational competition through charter schools. Then Johnson dropped a bomb. “Half of what we spend on law enforcement, the courts, and the prisons is drug related,” he proclaimed. “I suggest that legalizing marijuana will make this country a better place.”
The crowd erupted in a clash of boos and applause—evidence, Johnson told me later, that the tea party is ripe for debate on the issue. “What the tea party talks about is wise spending,” he said, adding that the war on drugs was certainly no better a deal than Social Security or Medicare. The tea party’s libertarian elements, he noted, have already led to the unthinkable: “You find more Republican candidates right now espousing legalization of marijuana than you do Democrats.”
He’s probably right, says Allen St. Pierre, head of the pro-legalization National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which funnels 80 percent of its political donations to Democrats. “Republicans are definitely more on the record in terms of support for ending prohibition,” he says. While pot-friendly pols from either side of the aisle are still rare species, the GOP variety tends to voice unequivocal support for outright legalization. Republican exemplars include ex-Colorado GOP congressman Tom Tancredo (now running for governor on the American Constitution Party ticket) and the GOP challengers to Reps. Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi. Nobody, of course, is more outspoken on the issue than Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the 2008 presidential hopeful and tea party patron saint, who recently wrote that “decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level would be a start” to ending “the insanity of the War on Drugs.”
GOP voters might prove receptive to such a message. According to the Pew Research Center, a whopping 61 percent of Republicans support legalizing the drug for medical patients (as 14 states already have). In a recent Gallup poll, nearly one-third favored legalizing pot outright. In California, pollsters have shown similar levels of Republican support for Proposition 19, the ballot initiative that would legalize, regulate, and tax recreational marijuana for adults.
While Democrats favor Prop 19 at twice the rate of Republicans, pot activists insist that the tea party world is helping to narrow the gap. Yes on 19 field director James Rigdon, who sends canvassers to most of the state’s tea party rallies, believes that “individual tea party members are absolutely on board.” Case in point: During Ron Paul’s September 4 San Francisco visit, Rigdon’s canvassers signed up 10 new volunteers.
Advocates of marijuana legalization have found major allies on the Right since at least the early 1970s, when Richard Cowan, a past president of the Yale Young Republicans, wrote a National Review cover story that proclaimed, “The Time Has Come: Abolish the Pot Laws.” (Cowan later served as national director of NORML.) “Tea party rhetoric is very heavily oriented towards the Founding Fathers,” who were much friendlier toward the marijuana plant than today’s federal government, Cowan told me. “Washington and Jefferson grew hemp!”
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