Republicans want to legalize it too: Meet the conservatives fighting for marijuana reform

Republicans want to legalize it too: Meet the conservatives fighting for marijuana reform
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

It's not just liberal hippies smoking weed — Republicans get high too.

That simple fact often seems overlooked as momentum for marijuana reform builds across the United States. After all, many of the states leading the charge, from California to Massachusetts, are considered deep-blue Democratic territory — and this fits an outdated narrative of weed as the province of the left.

But politicians, grassroots organizations and regular citizens alike have long understood that the path toward full legalization runs through bipartisan efforts, and that means consolidating support on the conservative side. 

Lately, that's exactly what we're seeing. 

There's been rising support for marijuana among Republicans

In 2016, YouGov reported that the percentage of Republicans backing legalization had hit a "new high," with approval slightly edging out commitment to prohibition. Polls in blood-red states like Utah and Texas have shown a similar shift in public opinion, sometimes in the space of just a few years.

Source: YouGov

 

This didn't happen overnight, of course. There are plenty of reasons that Republicans have gradually come to feel more comfortable with cannabis and decided to support it. We'll let them explain in their own words.

The battle at the state level

Of all the conservative legislators contacted for this story, Jeremy Faison, elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives for the state's 11th District in 2010, was perhaps most eager to discuss marijuana reform. 

Make no mistake: Rep. Faison dishes out his share of conservative red meat. He's a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, which endorsed him with a 100% rating in 2016. He's firmly anti-abortion rights, maintaining that life begins at conception. The son of a minister, he leads weekly worship at Crossroads Community Church in the city Newport, Tennessee. 

But he also wants his state to embrace medical marijuana — for a host of economic reasons.

"I see cannabis law reforms as a huge benefit for many reasons," Faison told Mic in an email. "Financially, our state can benefit from not spending so much money criminalizing it. We can see small businesses grow and thrive from being a part of manufacturing. ... Our health care costs will drop drastically."

"Also, the 'wood-working' effect will be great," he said. "Wood-working is all of the side businesses that grow from the need of a supply chain."

Rep. Faison
Source: 
Erik Schelzig/AP

Together with Steve Dickerson, a Republican member of the Tennessee Senate, Faison at the end of 2016 introduced a bill that aims to secure cannabis access for people with medical conditions including HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, seizures and Alzheimer's disease. It would allow the establishment of 50 grow operations statewide, the first 15 being in "distressed" areas.

But Faison doesn't just see this program as a potential fiscal boom. He also recounts the tribulations of a family member who might have benefited from medical marijuana. 

"Several years ago, a very close relative of mine struggled with bipolar disorder," Faison said. "He tried every prescription many times over a 20-year period." His relative's last prescription was Abilify — an antipsychotic linked to compulsive behaviors and even suicide. "After two months on that drug, he took his life," he said. So when Faison learned that marijuana "can help people struggling emotionally," he began to study it — and was amazed by what he learned.

In 2014, Faison led the push to legalize industrial production of hemp in the state. Last year, he flew to Colorado specifically to visit with Tennesseans who had moved there in hopes of saving a family member's life — or their own — with the help of marijuana. 

"The plant is working for many of them," he said, and it's "far safer than many prescription pills." The search for an alternative to these drugs is of paramount importance to Tennessee: As of 2016, there were more opioid prescriptions than people in the state, and new research has shown lower rates of opioid hospitalizations in states with legal marijuana.

"The more and more I studied the cannabis plant as a whole," said Faison, "the more I was convinced that God Himself gave us the plant for a myriad of good reasons."

Meet the Congressional Cannabis Caucus

Marijuana isn't just a matter for state governments, though. Because it remains prohibited at the federal level, any state that regulates its sale is caught in an uneasy limbo, overseeing a technically illegal — and lucrative, and job-creating — industry. 

At least four members of the U.S. House of Representatives are very eager to change that, and two of them are Republicans from conservative strongholds that already enjoy legal weed.

February 2017 saw the creation of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, a coalition that includes Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California's 48th District, centered in heavily Republican Orange County, and Rep. Don Young, Alaska's sole voice in the House. The two conservatives are teaming up with Democratic Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon's 3rd District and Jared Polis of Colorado's 2nd District. 

Their goal: to protect compliant marijuana businesses as well as their patients and customers.

"We're stepping forward together to say we've got to make major changes in our country's attitude toward cannabis," Rohrabacher said in a press conference announcing the group's formation and agenda. "And if we do, many people are going to live better lives, it's going to be better for our country, better for people, and it makes economic sense at a time when every penny must count for government."

Rohrabacher — whose office did not return request for comment — has been especially determined to prevent the disruption of the cannabis economy in states that have welcomed it, and he's using traditionally conservative tools to do so. 

His Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which he first introduced to Congress in 2003 with Reps. Maurice Hinchey and Sam Farr, went down in defeat six times before finally reaching President Barack Obama's desk and becoming law in 2014. It blocks the Department of Justice from spending funds to interfere with states as they implement "their own state laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana." 

More recently, Rohrabacher has pursued the states' rights argument with the aptly titled Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. The bill amends the Controlled Substances Act so that nobody who "produces, possesses, distributes, dispenses, administers or delivers marijuana in compliance with state laws" is subject to criminal or civil penalties on the federal scale. 

In other words, law-abiding weed growers and retailers wouldn't have to worry about Drug Enforcement Administration raids, and patients or customers who have gone through legal channels to obtain marijuana could not be prosecuted. 

Rohrabacher made a passionate call for common sense in reconciling federal and state marijuana laws when he introduced the bill in February: 

"I happen to believe that the federal government shouldn't be locking up anyone for making a decision of what he or she should privately consume, whether that person is rich or poor," he said, "and we should never be giving people the excuse, especially federal authorities, that they have a right to stop people or intrude into their lives in order to prevent them and prevent others from smoking a weed, consuming something they personally want to consume."

"This issue is coming of age"

In a conference call with Mic and other media outlets on the eve of April 20, Rep. Earl Blumenauer was enthusiastic about the outlook for continued reform — in large part because of Republicans willing to cross the aisle. He cited bipartisan consensus on the need to "eliminate federal roadblocks" to marijuana research as well as "ending punitive taxation for the industry," a cause that Republican tax reform advocate Grover Norquist has endorsed

"I've never met anybody who felt that there was any purpose to forcing state marijuana businesses to be all-cash operations," Blumenauer added. "Not one person." Allowing them to function more like typical companies, he said, is a concept that has "overwhelming bipartisan support and no significant opposition." 

The Congressional Cannabis Caucus doesn't seem too worried about a crackdown from President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, either, which just goes to show how optimistic they are about widespread Republican acceptance of the weed industry. In eight of the nine states that voted on marijuana initiatives in 2016, "we were successful," Blumenauer said, with just a "narrow loss" in Arizona. 

More and more, Blumenauer concluded, we are seeing "recognition that this issue is coming of age."

Blumenauer
Source: 
Cliff Owen/AP

The grassroots movement

These politicians aren't just pushing for sturdier marijuana protections because they personally believe in them — their constituents want the same thing. 

Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, or RAMP, is a fascinating example. As opposed to groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and NORML, which exist solely to press for an end to the federal marijuana ban and regulation along the lines of alcohol or tobacco, RAMP comes along with a partisan ideology. They just also happen to agree about weed, and they describe themselves as "a nonprofit organization and political caucus within the GOP that supports responsible marijuana policy."

RAMP was co-founded by lifelong Republican Ann Lee of Texas, who says she came to her current position by way of a family tragedy, like Tennessee's Rep. Faison. In 1990, her son Richard was paralyzed in a work-related accident. He found that marijuana eased his muscle spasms — and told her about it.

Ann Lee, co-founder of RAMP.
Source: 
RAMP

"He looked at us and said, 'Mom and Dad, marijuana is good for me,'" she told Mother Jones in 2015. "I didn't want to hear that, because I had fallen for all of the propaganda." As RAMP's website tells it, she embarked on a course of personal research. Ultimately, she and her husband Bob "began to question the illegality of marijuana and came to the conclusion that the plant was good medicine and ought to be legal." Bob passed away in 2015, but Ann — now in her late 80s — continues to challenge Texas' harsh anti-marijuana laws and seek improvements to their limited medical program.

The spark for RAMP came when Ann was asked to fill in on a NORML panel and discovered that three of the five people speaking on it were, in fact, Republicans. From there, she and Bob developed the line of thought that marijuana prohibition "is in direct opposition to the basic Republican policies of smaller government, fiscal responsibility and less intrusion in your personal life." They may have even swayed Texas Rep. Ted Cruz with that logic.

At the same time, Lee and RAMP have highlighted a schism in the GOP. The group was reportedly denied a booth at the Republican Party of Texas' 2016 convention — without explanation. Later in the year, she turned up to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland to serve as an alternate party delegate — her first trip to the RNC since 1984, when she was a delegate for Ronald Reagan.

"The main thing I hope I can do is just ask [conservatives] to consider if they can support prohibition and be conservative," Lee told Leafly at the time. "I don't know why Republicans have been paying homage to this law [against marijuana], like it was handed down to us by Moses, when it was passed in 1937 as part of the New Deal. It would be funny if it wasn't so serious." 

Marijuana prohibition "is in direct opposition to the basic Republican policies of smaller government, fiscal responsibility and less intrusion in your personal life." — Ann Lee

The voting public  

Beyond the activists and the legislators are the most important people of all: the citizens who vote and sign petitions — and use marijuana themselves.

Aaron, who requested his last name be withheld for privacy, is a 34-year-old Pennsylvania State University alumnus who still lives in Pennsylvania, a state moving gradually toward a medical marijuana program. He works freelance as a video editor. He also suffers from Crohn's disease, chronic pain, osteoporosis, arthritis and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He described himself, in an email to Mic, as "fairly conservative" but "very much pro-marijuana." He wrote: 

"I first began to notice the medicinal benefits of marijuana about 15 years ago. I noticed that when I smoked pot, my Crohn's disease was more bearable. My flare-ups were less severe, and the pain, cramping and frequent bathroom visits diminished. As my health got worse and I began to suffer from chronic pain from my dying bones, I noticed that smoking pot made my pain easier to bear. I required fewer opioid painkillers to manage the pain, and my depression regarding my health was less intense. I now use it every chance I get, and it has helped me immensely."

The problem, he said, is access: "I do not have a consistent source, and I am constantly in danger of being caught with [marijuana]," he said. "Since I live in a physical rehab facility, being caught with it would result in serious consequences for me." 

Aaron doesn't see a clash between his right-leaning principles and marijuana reform, though he's candid about the legal bind he currently finds himself in: "As a conservative, I believe that the law is the law, and those who break it are criminals."

"However, my personal belief is that marijuana laws were flawed from the start," he clarified. "They were shaped by ignorance and fear, and because of this, I don't feel that bad about breaking them." 

"Marijuana laws were flawed from the start. They were shaped by ignorance and fear, and because of this, I don't feel that bad about breaking them." 

As for the majority of the Republican resistance to weed? "All I can say is that anyone who doesn't see the potential benefits of marijuana use is simply ignorant and close-minded," Aaron said. "The GOP is refusing to even consider researching marijuana, which is ludicrous. How can the gathering of information be harmful? By refusing to even gather information on marijuana, they are simply being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn. Jeff Sessions clearly doesn't know what he's talking about. His ignorance and stubbornness is preventing sick people from getting better, and that is inexcusable."

But there is cause to be hopeful. "Thankfully, Pennsylvania has voted to legalize medical marijuana," Aaron noted. "Though it is not available at the moment, the state is in the process of setting up licensing and distribution systems. I'm told that the whole process should be up and running within the next 12 to 18 months." 

It will be a relief to him and many others — including, no doubt, a few Republicans.