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On Marijuana: Get Ahead of the Inevitable

National Review‘s “Sensible on Weed” piece yesterday got me thinking … not so much about marijuana, but about social movements.

Of late, conservatives are notoriously bad at understanding – to say nothing of exploiting – powerful social movements. Part of this is the essential and desirable nature of conservatism; we like to think of ourselves as grounded by deeper values than those who are susceptible to the faddish and fashionable.

The pessimistic strain of conservatism tends to believe all is lost, civilization has fallen, and the Overton Window opens only to the left. We often misunderstand even our emerging victories. On issues like attitudes toward government, guns, abortion, and education reform we’re in a better position than we’ve been in decades, even if the day-to-day political scrum sometimes distracts us from the upside.

On gay marriage, we were famously tone-deaf to the change in society that finally drove it to into the mainstream, particularly with younger voters. Society changed. It doesn’t matter how and why, and we’re not required to like it. What matters is that the change is real, and has real political implications. As I’ve said before, conservatives lost the gay marriage battle socially long before they lost it politically. The rear-guard action of trying to stop it legislatively is increasingly untenable politically.

Which is why Republicans need to get ahead of the marijuana question, and soon.

Though I grew up in an extremely permissive environment for that kind of thing, I haven’t smoked dope since the 1980s. Never was my thing, really. I don’t think it’s great. I don’t think it’s evil. I don’t think it’s a magical medicine. It’s not a revenue panacea for states, but it won’t hurt. It’s just dope. I don’t want my kids smoking it, and they won’t under my roof. There are worse things to get high on, and there are much better. (My preferred modality, like millions of Americans, is a good, stiff cocktail.)

Marijuana prohibition is like every other prohibition: it drives up costs, creates black markets, and criminalizes trivial behavior. This prohibition feeds an increasingly Kafkaesque, asset-forfeiture-driven, militarized police system, and takes up tens of thousands of prison beds that could be occupied by violent offenders. It costs billions in state and federal enforcement programs with an abysmal price-to-punch ratio.

Which is why it’s time for the GOP to seize the political benefits of getting ahead of where society is already going on the topic of weed.

I’m not saying we should blaze up at fundraisers, or that candidates need to start offering elephant bongs to donors, or that the campaign van needs a Phish sticker. But we should at least be talking about reducing the penalties, danger, and illegality for a drug that society decided a long time ago it likes.

It’s a mirror image of the tough-on-crime strategy of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Rock-hard anti-crime policies were a classic marriage of the right politics and the right policy at the right time; liberalism’s 30-year misreading of middle-class anxiety about crime and violence yielded political victories for Republicans at every level. Crime really was a national crisis for decades, and Democrats derided concern over it as nothing more than crude polemics.

But conservative Democrats needed permission to accept voting for the other party. Being tough on crime gave them the latitude to vote Republican. For example, Rudy Giuliani’s 1997 campaign was about giving New York Democrats permission to vote for Giuliani because he’d cleaned up the streets, cut crime, and closed the porn palaces. Manhattan’s elites hated it, but those policies gave a permission slip to people who wouldn’t normally vote GOP.

Now, we have an opportunity to signal to voters, particularly a younger generation of voters, that we’re not the dorky Dad Party we’ve been cast as for a generation. We have a chance to show people our rhetoric on personal freedom isn’t just a campaign talking point, and that we’re serious about ending the criminalization of everyday life. It’s a chance to let young voters say, “Well, I didn’t love Republican Candidate X on some things, but at least he’s okay about weed.”

This doesn’t mean reefer madness, either. The sweet spot for candidates is to reduce the criminal penalties for personal use, walk toward legalization without the charade of medical marijuana, and have the law treat being intoxicated on marijuana with exactly the same seriousness with which we treat being drunk behind the wheel (or any circumstance where the lives of others are at risk).

We profited at the ballot box by catching the social shift on crime. It may not feel as natural politically, but with opinion shifting rapidly on ending marijuana prohibition, it’s time for a conservative approach. We should be champions for reducing absurd sentencing guidelines, cutting spending on the failed War on Weed, decriminalizing the activities of millions of everyday Americans, eliminating black markets, and raising revenue. Conservatives should be on the leading edge of a social change in this fight, attracting new voters, shrinking the state just a little, and making political gains.

In the meantime, I’m adding snack food stocks to our portfolio.

Image via Shutterstock.

  1. BrentB67

    Rick, if this is the way forward and republicans are to adopt individual liberty position(s) do you think this an opportunity to adopt individual consequence position(s) and roll back mechanisms that tend to socialize consequences?

    My reason for asking is that making argument that the right give up a principle to stay ahead of a social wave tends not to be very persuasive, but leveraging it to other core positions might make it a powerful motivator.

  2. Andrew

    I agree.

  3. Merina Smith

    Let’s get out ahead of the polygamy movement too!  Let’s get ahead of all the movements! Let’s think them up ourselves!

  4. Ron Selander

    Good grief! Another post causing me to think that I’m wasting my time here!

  5. Frank Soto

    Quick point of order, NR has supported legalizing weed since 96.

  6. katievs

    On gay marriage, we were famously tone-deaf to the change in society that finally drove it to into the mainstream, particularly with younger voters. Society changed. It doesn’t matter how and why, and we’re not required to like it. What matters is that the change is real, and has real political implications.

    Oh.  I thought what matters is what’s right and good.  Silly me.

  7. mask

    Want to decriminalize weed?  Fine, lets talk about it.  I don’t think our drug war makes much sense so I’m persuadable.

    But lets stop this “getting ahead of things” or “getting with the times” nonsense.

    Know what other issues we’ve lost a long long time ago? Limited government, fiscal responsibility, decentralized government, and federalism.

    So instead of standing athwart history yelling stop we’re now supposed to stand athwart nothing and be the first to jump in the river?

  8. Tuck

    “Quick point of order, NR has supported legalizing weed since 96.”

    Pretty sure it was longer than that.  I was an intern there in ’90, and NR’s position was favoring legalization even then.

    Nice post, Rick.  Agree 100%.

    Here’s Buckley on pot:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Vfz2O0NXuE

  9. Tom Meyer
    Rick Wilson

    The sweet spot for candidates is to reduce the criminal penalties for personal use, walk toward legalization without the charade of medical marijuana, and to have the law treat being intoxicated on marijuana with exactly the same seriousness with which we treat being drunk behind the wheel, or in any circumstance where the lives of others are at risk.

    I second this whole-heartedly.

  10. Fred Cole

    I’m glad someone finally broke the barrier and we can talk about this on ricochet. It’s just one of those topics that we never ever seem to talk about here. There aren’t threads on it, nor does it ever seem to come up in the comments.

  11. Jon Gabriel, Ed.

    I, somewhat reluctantly, agree with the article. I don’t like anything about weed — the smell, the effect, the culture — and I tend to view regular smokers quite negatively.* But something I view even more negatively is our leviathan government telling each of us what we can and cannot do.

    Like you, Rick, if it were legalized tomorrow I wouldn’t touch the stuff and would tell anyone I know not to. Much as I do now. But I support a gradual easing of anti-marijuana laws. Hell didn’t break loose with the “medical” designation and now we can learn lessons from Colorado’s legalization.

    I think heavy use of weed is bad, just like heavy use of cigarettes, booze and donuts. But there is not a need for government to enforce the healthier choices upon us.

    * I’m concerned that much of my personal distaste for weed is based not on right/wrong, but style. I look down on the ganja-huffing, dreadlocked white boy on the quad playing bongos, like I would look down on fans of Nickelback or the Oakland Raiders. Am I rooting for government to ban something because I think it’s uncouth? 

  12. mask

    I’m shocked that a political consultant would advocate with sticking our fingers in the air and going along with whatever the kids these days want to do.

    Someone wake me up when the GOP figures out how to message and persuade people instead of trying to out triangulate and out maneuver the Democrats on convincing voters they can turn the levers of government in their favor.

  13. Rick Wilson
    C

    I think the right policy can = right politics.

    BrentB67: Rick, if this is the way forward and republicans are to adopt individual liberty position(s) do you think this an opportunity to adopt individual consequence position(s) and roll back mechanisms that tend to socialize consequences?

    My reason for asking is that making argument that the right give up a principle to stay ahead of a social wave tends not to be very persuasive, but leveraging it to other core positions might make it a powerful motivator. · 41 minutes ago

  14. Jon Gabriel, Ed.

    I see ad hominem and snark, but few compelling reasons why the GOP should maintain the war on weed. I’m kind of in the middle, wavering.

    If you want strict legal limits on marijuana, convince me that I’m wrong. 

    The great thing about Ricochet is the conversation. If you disagree with the article, write the opposing view. Both sides need to hear it.

  15. Rick Wilson
    C

    I operate in the world as it is. Said a lot about that here: http://ricochet.com/main-feed/Culture-War-3.0-and-the-Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade

    katievs

    On gay marriage, we were famously tone-deaf to the change in society that finally drove it to into the mainstream, particularly with younger voters. Society changed. It doesn’t matter how and why, and we’re not required to like it. What matters is that the change is real, and has real political implications.

    Oh.  I thought what matters is what’s right and good.  Silly me. · 20 minutes ago

  16. Rick Wilson
    C

    The difference being, of course, that there’s no broad national consensus except against polygamy.

    Merina Smith: Let’s get out ahead of the polygamy movement too!  Let’s get ahead of all the movements! Let’s think them up ourselves! · 32 minutes ago

  17. Merina Smith

    I don’t understand this thinking. One or two states legalize marijuana and we should jump on the bandwagon? What happened to states as units of experimentation?  Why can’t we see what happens and go slowly?  There are always unintended consequences that become clear after awhile.  So if use greatly increases among teen-agers (a likelihood, I’d say) and addiction to harder drugs becomes much more common, and marijuana induced driving accidents go way up, we should all still jump on this bandwagon?  The same with marriage. Where’s the fire?  Is it possible to be sensible about these things and go slowly to see what the consequences are, or do we have to bow to the left (and libertarians for that matter) on every whim they cook up and make huge social changes in a nanosecond?  Which happens because people like you advise giving up every fight without fighting or even asking for a sensible approach.  

  18. Frank Soto
    Tuck: “Quick point of order, NR has supported legalizing weed since 96.”

    Pretty sure it was longer than that.  I was an intern there in ’90, and NR’s position was favoring legalization even then.

    Nice post, Rick.  Agree 100%.

    Here’s Buckley on pot:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Vfz2O0NXuE 

    The ultimate point being, this isn’t NR trying to get in front of the issue, it’s been where logic has taken them for a quarter century.

  19. Rick Wilson
    C

    Why yes…it’s what I do. I have a strong bias for victory, and an inability to not make the best the enemy of the good.

    mask: I’m shocked that a political consultant would advocate with sticking our fingers in the air and going along with whatever the kids these days want to do.

    Someone wake me up when the GOP figures out how to message and persuade people instead of trying to out triangulate and out maneuver the Democrats on convincing voters they can turn the levers of government in their favor. · 9 minutes ago

  20. Rick Wilson
    C

    I’d counsel you to look at the CNN/ORC poll from today. Like other surveys, it shows a multi-decade increase in the acceptance of marijuana.

    Merina Smith: I don’t understand this thinking. One or two states legalize marijuana and we should jump on the bandwagon? What happened to states as units of experimentation?  Why can’t we see what happens and go slowly?  There are always unintended consequences that become clear after awhile.  So if use greatly increases among teen-agers (a likelihood, I’d say) and addiction to harder drugs becomes much more common, and marijuana induced driving accidents go way up, we should all still jump on this bandwagon?  The same with marriage. Where’s the fire?  Is it possible to be sensible about these things and go slowly to see what the consequences are, or do we have to bow to the left (and libertarians for that matter) on every whim they cook up and make huge social changes in a nanosecond?  Which happens because people like you advise giving up every fight without fighting or even asking for a sensible approach.   · 2 minutes ago