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.