04.17.2016
policy

Why the Weed Movement Needs Conservatives for Legalization

Our values are in America's best interests.

The National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was founded in 1970 with the mission of ending cannabis prohibition. The following year, President Nixon famously declared War on Drugs, and thus began a 45-year fight for the hearts and minds of Americans. 

Battle lines were drawn—hippies, yippies, radicals, and leftists lined up behind the legalization movement. The law-and-order, clean-cut, conservative crowd backed a hardline approach to the scourge of marijuana. Both sides dug in, and the national debate devolved into a war of attrition. Billions of dollars were spent (wasted?) on a series of policies that destroyed much and achieved nothing. 

It took 25 years before California eventually legalized medical marijuana in 1996. 

People are still in prison for marijuana. In most places, cancer patients can still be arrested for growing a weed in their own backyard. 

Today, fewer than half the states in the union have followed suit. It took almost 20 more years before a handful of states began experimenting with full-scale recreational legalization. Those states (Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and the District of Columbia) are still anomalies—statistical outliers in the national calculus. None of them crack the list of our top 10 most populated states. Combined, they make up about half of California’s total population.

Despite the War on Drugs’ well-documented failure, reform has come at a glacial pace. The majority of Americans still live under prohibition. People are still in prison for marijuana. In most places, cancer patients can still be arrested for growing a weed in their own backyard. Farmers are still denied the right to produce industrial hemp on their own lands. Students still risk losing federal student aid for possessing a single joint. 


Image via Beth Shankler/The Press Democrat

The numbers are promising, but we’re not going to achieve commonsense drug-policy reform alone.

We can do better.

National polls show that the tide is finally starting to turn in our favor. A slim majority of Americans favor legalizing, taxing and regulating responsible adult use of cannabis. The numbers are promising, but we’re not going to achieve commonsense drug-policy reform alone.

Marijuana legalization has been considered a “fringe” issue of the far left for too long. It’s been too easy for opponents to dismiss us like UFO conspiracists. We’ve done a poor job of reaching out to a huge, untapped pool of potential allies. To push legalization past the tipping point, the movement must attract a more diverse base of support. Before we can gain widespread acceptance as a serious political cause, we need to shed the “stupid stoner” stigma and broaden our appeal to voters who might not personally consume cannabis, but who sympathize with our positions. 

We need conservatives.

The label conservative is imprecise. It generally describes people who favor small, local government (or who distrust centralized federal authority). It includes people who value individual liberty over collectivism. There’s nothing that a conservative abhors more than a sprawling, bureaucratic, government program that consumes tax dollars without showing compelling, commensurate benefit. 


Image via afeefers/VSCO

To push legalization past the critical tipping point, the movement must attract a more diverse base of support.

Conservatives value freedom of conscience, religion, and the right to believe whatever an individual chooses to believe within the confines of his or her own home. They support property rights and the prerogative of landowners to make beneficial use of their lands. They trust the free market over government regulation. Conservatives claim to value compassion.

They don’t want Washington making their medical decisions. They hate crime, and they really hate crime that comes across our Southern border. Most of all, they demand the right to live and to raise their families without paternalistic politicians telling them what’s in their best interests. These are all great arguments to legalize marijuana.

Cracks are appearing in the dam of prohibition. After 45 years of beating our heads against the concrete, we have a real opportunity to affect meaningful changes to our country’s drug policies. It’s time to reach out to your conservative friends. Have a respectful conversation. Talk to your parents. Discuss the issues in terms that conservatives can get behind.

The War on Drugs doesn’t need to be a partisan flashpoint. It can be framed as waste vs. efficiency, freedom vs. regulation, or as the individual vs. big government. By making a little room for conservatives at the table, we might avoid another 45 years of failed policies.   

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