Around the same time I joined Weedmaps in November of 2021, Pew Research Group published survey data on attitudes towards cannabis within partisan coalitions. The top line: Democrats are more likely to support cannabis legalization than Republicans.
As a lifelong conservative, former GOP Senate staffer and erstwhile director of policy and external communications for the Republican governor of South Carolina, I know well that cannabis reform is something of a third rail among “Faith and Flag” conservatives (as the study describes them). But, Pew’s below-the-line findings told a different story than its headline – and validated my own budding theory: widespread embrace of cannabis reform on the right isn’t just good politics, it’s inevitable.
According to Pew, the demographic most responsible for driving changing attitudes towards cannabis in America is the “Ambivalent Right” – the youngest of the right-leaning political groups consisting largely (63%) of adults under 50 years old. (In other words, the future of the party.) Even more encouraging – Pew’s research is no outlier.
Recent polling from Civiqs shows more Republicans support cannabis reform than oppose it in nearly every state. Among younger demographics, 65% of respondents aged 18-34 and 61% of respondents aged 35-49 are pro-legalization. Polling from Quinnipiac in 2021 showed similar results, with a 62% majority of Republicans responding that cannabis should be legalized at the federal level.
Yet, despite those compelling figures, conservatives in Washington remain largely united in their opposition to cannabis reform. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which would decriminalize the plant, recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives with only three Republican votes. And, in my own state of South Carolina, a long-germinating medical cannabis bill failed to get over the finish line after a handful of conservative House members killed it on procedural grounds. This, despite polling showing that 76% of Republican primary voters support allowing sick patients access to medical cannabis.
So – what gives? Why are so many Republican lawmakers so intransigent on this specific issue? I think the answer is twofold: 1) growing support for cannabis reform has yet to fully penetrate the conservative subconscious, where it must compete with and overcome nearly 100 years of entrenched prohibitionist rhetoric; and 2) there is a lack of cognizable, widely circulated conservative arguments for cannabis.
As a conservative in this space, I can understand the cognitive dissonance that many Republican lawmakers must feel when confronted with the rapidly evolving nature of public opinion. For decades following the Nixon and Reagan eras, a hardline stance against liberalizing our drug laws was the safest place for any right-leaning candidate or incumbent. That has changed, and as support for cannabis reform on the right continues to gain traction and reach clear majorities, lawmakers should not only consider the numbers but the broader conservative case, as well.
Economics. The economic argument should appeal to everyone on the political spectrum, but particularly to pro-growth conservatives. Despite a balkanized and highly regulated marketplace, domestic cannabis sales are predicted to exceed $30 billion by the end of the 2022 and $51.7 billion by 2027 (a compound annual growth rate of 11.5%). As of January 2022, the cannabis industry supported more than 428,059 jobs in the United States, with that figure expected to increase to around 600,000 by 2025 (and to 1.75 million if federal legalization occurs).
Then, of course, there’s the tax revenue – and while this isn’t a conservative argument per se, there are few Republican governors who wouldn’t mind a few extra bucks in the coffers for much-needed state priorities (I know from experience).
In 2021 alone, legal states generated roughly $3 billion in revenue from cannabis sales (outraising alcohol by 20%). Those taxes go to a host of state-level projects, including law enforcement, education, health care and conservation efforts. By establishing safe and well-regulated cannabis marketplaces at the state and local levels, states and local jurisdictions can help their economies, create jobs and generate tax dollars at a time when they are needed most. (Given the current state of economic uncertainty, it’s also worth noting that cannabis is most likely recession proof.)
Federalism. Much ink has been spilled about federalism in the context of cannabis, and indeed there is no issue more emblematic of federalist principles at work than the ongoing experiment with state-level legalization. As Justice Louis Brandeis said, states are the “laboratories of democracy,” and since 2012 those laboratories have shown the world how to stand up safe and successful cannabis marketplaces without causing societal harm.
Look no further than Oklahoma, a “boom state” for medical cannabis which, by embracing the free market and eschewing arbitrary caps on businesses, now has as many licensed cannabis entrepreneurs as California. Another red state, Montana, recently legalized adult-use sales, taking in $9 million in revenue in just the first quarter. Across the political spectrum, legal states have enfranchised aspiring entrepreneurs and created small businesses, effectively conjuring new industry and thousands of new jobs out of thin air.
At the least, right-leaning lawmakers should support such state-centric decision making. Some, like Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) have actually recognized the status quo as the best path forward. Late last year, she introduced the States Reform Act, which would deschedule cannabis and allow states to make their own decisions on how to regulate it. It’s a compelling, conservative solution, though perhaps not the preferred course of action for some in the cannabis advocacy space.
Government Waste. Cannabis prohibition leads to a staggering amount of government waste, with more than $1 trillion spent on the war on drugs since its inception. As of 2020, the average cost of housing a federal inmate was $39,158 annually, while the average cost at the state level ranges from $14,000 to $70,000 per year. For the tens-of-thousands of U.S. citizens still incarcerated for cannabis, it’s an egregious misuse of taxpayer funds. Moreover, it makes a mockery of our justice system, which tilts towards the farcical when it comes to cannabis. As legal states mint millionaires, prohibitionist states continue to lock people up. It’s a moral calamity, but it’s also a crisis of institutional credibility. Conservatives should take steps to protect our judicial system from those disparities which increasingly undermine its legitimacy.
Voters. Cannabis businesses – most of them small businesses – are a strong potential constituency for conservatives. In California, calls for comprehensive tax reform have cannabis entrepreneurs sounding increasingly like Grover Norquist. In fact, much of the political advocacy within the cannabis community is now centered around conservative touchstones like lowering taxes and slashing bureaucratic red tape. Today, it’s largely progressive policies that stand in the way of success for cannabis businesses, with high taxes stifling growth and increasing costs for consumers – in turn, propping up the illicit market, where products are unregulated and much cheaper. A fairer, free market approach – without arbitrary caps on businesses or compounding taxes – would be a sweet salve, indeed.
Perhaps most compelling for right-leaning lawmakers is the existing support for legalization within their established constituencies (as detailed above). However, conservatism is not without its own history of support for cannabis reform. William F. Buckley supported decriminalization as far back as the 1970s. The libertarian-leaning CATO Institute is firmly on the record in support of cannabis reform. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group founded by the Koch Brothers, is right now on the ground in states across the nation working with legislatures to pass pro-cannabis measures. Veterans – long a staple voting bloc for conservatives – are active as well, with organizations like Weed for Warriors and Veterans Alliance for Holistic Alternatives engaging at the state level to promote cannabis as a treatment for PTSD and a range of other conflict-related ailments. And, let’s not forget the corporate world, which is increasingly outspoken on this issue.
Doctrine. From a doctrinal standpoint, there is no shortage of core conservative texts that support the unfettered exercise of free will and personal responsibility, so long as those decisions do not interfere with the preservation of societal order.
In Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative” the former senator and presidential candidate said that “the Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order.” This echoes another of the foundational documents of modern conservative doctrine, 1960’s Sharon Statement, which stated “that foremost among the transcendent values is the individuals’ use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from restrictions of arbitrary force.”
Given the success we’ve seen in so many legal states – and the new economic and social freedoms that so many of our fellow citizens enjoy – it is incumbent on our government officials to bring some semblance of order to our currently disorganized system. Polity demands it – not to mention basic principles of economics, good governance, fairness and morality. At minimum, Republicans should listen to the majority of their constituents, who demand freedom from such arbitrary restrictions – and the exercise of their God-given free will.