As the movement to expand access to marijuana grows across the country, the Republican Party, with the exception of its kooky libertarian wing, has a bad case of reefer madness. Gov. Rick Perry, who's no stranger to moments of mental madness, equated marijuana use to murder, while Gov. Chris Christie has more or less said he’d prefer dead kids to stoned kids. During the 2012 election, Mitt Romney promised to "fight tooth and nail" against pro-marijuana legalization.
While national polling shows more than 55% of Americans support pot legalization, Republicans remains strongly opposed, and in fact, more than two-thirds of Republicans voted against legalization in Colorado and Washington.
With Republicans likely to remain opposed, marijuana could emerge as a big cultural wedge issue winner in both the 2014 and 2016 elections. The GOP holds a majority in the House of Congress and is threatening in the Senate come November, but in state elections, marijuana on the ballot has big potential to harm Republican candidates. In January, the Florida Supreme Court approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize medical marijuana, assuring that the initiative will appear on the state’s November ballot. The referendum on pot may, in turn, determine the winner of the state’s gubernatorial race. According to the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, 70 percent of Floridians favor medical marijuana, which augers well for Democratic challenger Charlie Christ, given Gov. Rick Scott opposes the bill. There is considerable evidence that vote turnout rises when pot is on the ballot, especially for young voters who would naturally favor a candidate who supports it.
Nate Cohn, a columnist for the New Republic, writes that assuming Hillary Clinton would be the nominee, she “would be well-positioned to deploy the issue. Her strength among older voters and women mitigates the risk that she would lose very much support, while legalization could help Clinton with the young, independent, and male voters who could clinch her primary or general election victory.”
Democrats are already winning ideological clashes in this country’s cultural war. On issues from same-sex marriage to the death penalty; from abortion to gun control; poll after poll shows a majority of Americans lean left. Pot legalization is shaping up to be another issue Democrats could apply a blowtorch to Republicans in blue and purple states, for the GOP is handcuffed when it comes to dealing intelligently on the war on drugs. .
The Republican Party is institutionally opposed to any effort to roll back draconian drug laws, because on this issue the party must serve four masters.
1. Private Prison Corporations: The industrial prison complex is one of the party’s major donors. Since 2008, three major private prison corporations have spent nearly $50 million on campaign donations and lobbyists to push tough anti-drug legislation at the state and federal level. In 2011, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a report revealing the political strategies of private prison corporations “working to make money through harsh policies and longer sentences.” A significant finding was that while the total prison population increased by 15 percent, the number of people held in private prisons increased by 120 since 2001.
According to an expose of the for-profit prison industry, the five biggest recipients of private prison campaign donations are all Republicans. They include Rep. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).
Thanks to corporate political influence, the war on drugs became a war on the poor. As Chris Hedges has pointed out, the poor are of no value to corporations if they're on the streets, but put a poor person in prison, and voila, corporations earn up to $50,000 per year courtesy of taxpayer dollars paid for the outsourcing of U.S. prisons. Effectively, corporations have told the Republican Party that if they're going to take the risk of building the prisons, lawmakers had better enact tough drug laws to ensure they can be filled.
2. The Christian Right: The Christian Right, the most reliable and agitated voting bloc of the Republican Party, has an uncompromising and overly simplified worldview. Religious extremists see social issues solely through the prism of good versus evil. Drugs are bad! So, any attempt to legalize drugs is seen by the hyper-religious to be soft on crime (evil) and therefore constitutes a dance with the devil.
3. Military Industrial Complex: The military is to Republicans what civil rights are to Democrats, and the military industrial complex has arguably the greatest influence over Republican lawmakers. According to Open Secrets, defense contractors donated more than $27 million during the 2012 election cycle, with more than 60% of that going to Republican candidates.
Ian Lopez, author of After the War on Crime, writes, “From a big picture point of view, the welfare state is fighting the warfare state. The old-style liberals, the old Democratic Party, is fighting desperately somehow to defend the old welfare state, the Great Society, the New Deal, all the achievements of the last century, and they are losing. They are losing out to this right-wing vision of a warfare state that the government shouldn’t be in the business of helping people, but it should be in the business of keeping order domestically and globally. This vision of a leaner, meaner, primarily violent state—this is the debate as we find it: the nanny state versus the Robocop state.”
This Robocop state is being funded by the war on drugs, and defense contractors and weapon manufacturers increasingly and disproportionately fund the GOP. State police departments receive federal funding for every drug-related arrest made. The Department of Homeland Security effectively incentivizes the arrest of non-violent criminals. This is why cops harass harmless pot smokers. With this federal funding, beat cops can patrol our streets with all the militarized weaponry a Navy Seal unit might use on the streets of Fallujah. The big winner here is the weapons industry. Cities are using federal grants to scale up all kinds of weaponry, including procurement of armored vehicles like the Lenco BearCat, which is really just a monstrous military tank.
4. Political Expediency: In most states, convicted felons are barred from voting. Not only do minorities disproportionately lean Democrat, they also disproportionately represent the prison population. The GOP already spends millions of dollars suppressing the minority vote via Jim Crow-era voter ID laws and other underhanded tactics. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the Republican Party has introduced 92 restrictive bills in 33 states since the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Effectively, drug law enforcement that unfairly targets minorities does most of the dirty work for the party and at no additional charge.
In 2001, Portugal enacted a nationwide law decriminalizing all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. More than a decade later, the rampant drug use and drug tourism the Portuguese far-right predicted never materialized. Drug usage rates in Portugal are now among the lowest in the European Union, and drug-related ills such as sexually transmitted disease and deaths due to drug use have fallen dramatically. Money that was once wasted fighting a drug war has been funneled to successful drug prevention programs, and back into the economy at large.
Americans, at least those in the northern states, have demonstrated they wish to move forward along more scientific lines when it comes to dealing with the legalization of pot. Not only is pot legal in Colorado and Washington, voters have now approved the legalization of medical marijuana in another 20 states. As the nation's laws increasingly tilt toward public opinion on this issue, the challenge for the Republican Party will be figuring out how to appease voters while simultaneously appeasing its donor class. Until it figures that out, the GOP will continue to lose electoral races.