Is marijuana legalization the future of the Republican party?
If a group of newly installed GOP members of Congress is any indication, the answer could be yes.
Freshman Republican Congressman Tom Garrett of Virginia introduced a bill last month to completely remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Garrett replaced the retiring Republican Robert Hurt, who often voted against even the most incremental marijuana proposals, such as amendments to protect state medical cannabis laws from federal interference.
And new Congressman Jason Lewis of Minnesota, a former talk radio host who has regularly spoken up about the need to end the war on drugs, has already signed his name on to two marijuana reform bills. One would exempt state-legal marijuana activity from the CSA, and another would reschedule cannabis and remove roadblocks to scientific research on its medical benefits. Garrett is also a co-sponsor of the latter measure.
Like Garrett, Lewis also replaced a retiring Republican prohibitionist, John Kline, who voted eight times against medical cannabis amendments on the House floor and against a broader amendment to protect all state marijuana laws — including those allowing recreational use — from federal interference. He also opposed a measure to increase military veterans’ access to medical cannabis through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
And freshman GOP Congressman Scott Taylor or Virginia, a former Navy SEAL, is also cosponsoring Garrett’s descheduling bill. (Unlike the members that Garrett and Lewis replaced, however, Taylor predecessor Scott Rigell often supported marijuana amendments.)
“The GOP is headed in the right direction on drug policy reform,” Don Murphy, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director of conservative outreach, told MassRoots in an interview. “Freshmen bring to Congress an honest assessment of the status of the drug war and represent constituents whose opinions have changed faster than the veterans they replaced.”
Murphy, a former Maryland state delegate who successfully sponsored medical cannabis legislation to enactment, added that for today’s elected officials, “ending the drug war is good public policy and good politics.”
Brand new Democratic members of Congress are getting in on the action, too. Freshman Rep. Darren Soto of Florida has signed onto a bill to prevent federal authorities from seizing property just because it is involved with a state-legal medical marijuana operation.
While Democrats have historically supported marijuana reform legislation in stronger numbers than Republicans have, support within the GOP is growing. In addition to the new members of Congress, polling indicates that the party’s base is warming to cannabis issues, particularly when it comes to states’ rights.
A nationwide Quinnipiac University poll released last month found that while just 35 percent of Republican voters support legalizing marijuana, 55 percent want states to be able to set their own cannabis laws without federal interference. And 85 percent of GOP voters in the survey support medical marijuana.
Underscoring the point that marijuana reform is the future of the Republican Party, a 2014 Pew poll found that 63 percent of millennial GOP voters favor outright legalization.
Support from the new GOP marijuana reform supporters in Congress could help boost key votes to victory this year.
While the amendment to protect state medical marijuana law from federal harassment has already been passed twice with wide bipartisan margins, the broader amendment to prevent the Justice Department from interfering with recreational laws failed by just nine votes on the floor in 2015.
With the new supporters in place of retired opponents, plus the fact that there are now dozens more members who represent places where marijuana is legal as a result of last November’s elections, advocates are fairly confident they have votes to pass the broader amendment if and when it next comes before the House.
Support from within the GOP could also help boost standalone bills, and Garrett is optimistic about his descheduling proposal’s chances.
“We’ll get the left and we’ll get the right, and if we can get the middle this thing passes,” he recently said on a Cato Institute podcast.