Liberty, Jobs, and Freedom: How Cannabis Became a Conservative Issue

Published on November 7, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020

At a recent marijuana reform conference in Washington, DC, Rep. Tom Garrett, a freshman Republican congressman from Virginia, told a room full of cannabis activists that their beloved plant meant nothing to him.

'I don't care about marijuana. What I do care about is liberty, justice, and economic opportunity.

“I really don’t care about marijuana,” he declared.

No surprise there. Garrett, a former state prosecutor and winner of the American Conservative Union’s “Defender of Liberty” award, would never be mistaken for an avid dabber.

But then Garrett, 45, reversed course.

“What I do care about,” he said, “is individual liberty. What I do care about is justice. What I do care about is economic opportunity.”

And that, he said, is why six months ago he introduced HR 1227, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017. Garrett’s bill would do just what its title says: remove cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances entirely and allow states to regulate it as they please.

A generation ago, Garrett’s position would have been almost unimaginable for a conservative politician. At best he would have been treated as a harmless, eccentric outlier, a Ron Paul for millennials. At worst he might have been scorned by his own party.

Freedom Caucus member Rep. Thomas Garrett, (R-VA), right, with Rep. Mark Meadows, (R-SC) speaks to reporters during a news conference in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, July 19, 2017, calling on the House to repeal the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

But today Garrett is a rising star in conservative circles. And his public embrace of legalization is hardly eccentric. Garrett, along with Republican colleagues like Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Justin Amash (R-MI), and Matt Gaetz (R-FL), have positioned cannabis legalization as an issue aligned with their core conservative values—and their outspokenness is allowing many fellow conservatives to rethink their long-held opposition to the issue.

Consider these signs of change:

  • Republican support doubled. Earlier this week, a Gallup poll found that 51% of Republicans now support cannabis legalization—the first time that support has crossed into a majority. Among Republicans, that’s a whopping 9-point jump from 2016 and a doubling of support since 2010.
  • Orrin Hatch changed his mind. Hatch, the ancient senator who serves Utah, one of America’s most conservative states, came out as a medical marijuana advocate in dramatic fashion, giving a passionate defense of cannabis research and medicine on the Senate floor last month.
  • Some conservatives are framing this as their issue. In September, right-wing Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a longtime MMJ defender, wrote a Washington Post op-ed titled “My Fellow Conservatives Should Protect Medical Marijuana From the Government.
  • In red states, conservatives are pushing medical marijuana bills. Around the nation, conservative legislators are introducing medical cannabis legalization measures. In Georgia, Republican state Rep. Allen Peake led the passage of the state’s first CBD oil law last year. Indiana’s first medical marijuana bill was introduced earlier this year by Republican state Rep. Jim Lucas, whose voting record scores 92% from the American Conservative Union and 100% from the National Rifle Association.

Those events came nearly a year after the surprising results of the November 2016 election. A data dive by Leafly shortly after that historic vote found that conservative Trump voters in historically red states and counties—places like North Dakota, Arkansas, and Florida—cast their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of medical marijuana legalization.

As they have been for years, voters were ahead of politicians when it came to cannabis. Even conservative voters.

Dana Rohrabacher's right-wing bona fides allowed him to pull a Nixon-to-China move on legalization.
Dana Rohrabacher's right-wing bona fides allowed him to pull a Nixon-to-China move on legalization.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), left, speaks next to California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom at a news conference in support of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act ballot measure in San Francisco, Wednesday, May 4, 2016. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Seven years ago, legalization was largely a blue issue. A 2010 Newsweek poll found that 55% of Democrats supported state adult-use legalization, while 72% of Republicans opposed it. In late 2017, a Gallup poll found that Democratic support topped 72%, while Republican support had moved from the mid-20s to 51%.

Seven years ago, 72% of Republicans opposed marijuana legalization. Today, 51% support it.

That happened in part because legalization is moving into the mainstream of conservative thought. More to the point, it’s moving into the mainstream of young conservative thought. Rising Republican leaders like Tom Garrett aren’t advocating in favor of legalization despite their conservative values. They’re embracing the issue because of them.

One of the main tenets of modern conservatism, Garrett says, is the idea that “people who aren’t hurting other people should be left alone.” And cannabis is not hurting people. “I refuse to concede that the recreational user is hurting anybody,” he says.

Republican support is up 9% in less than a year. Source: Gallup Poll.

There have always been rare conservative gadflies speaking up for legalization. Economist Milton Friedman was for it. William F. Buckley infamously sparked up on his sailboat beyond the territorial limit of federal law. But their positions often came off as theoretical and symbolic, not anything they’d fight for on the ground.

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Legalization’s blue tinge wasn’t merely a perception issue. It was reality. When Rolling Stone profiled The 10 Best Politicians on Pot Reform in 2010, only two Republicans made the list—Dana Rohrabacher and Ron Paul.

So what changed? Many factors:

  • Public opinion shifted. Medical marijuana is now “more popular than the 4th of July,” as national political strategist Celinda Lake said recently. The latest Quinnipiac poll has 94% of Americans in favor of legal medical marijuana.
  • Legal states didn’t implode. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada went fully legal and did not implode in a miasma of cannabis addiction. In fact, those states enjoyed booming economies, an influx of talent, and healthy populations. Legal states proved that adults could handle legal, well-regulated cannabis.
  • Voting data opened eyes. As Leafly documented last year, conservative Republican states—North Dakota, Arkansas—swung hard for legal medical marijuana in November 2016. Deeply conservative counties in the critical swing state of Florida did, too.
  • Military veterans spoke out for medical marijuana. It was easy for conservatives to dismiss legalization pleas when they came from hippies. But when combat veterans spoke up, conservatives listened. Veterans said it helped them manage their PTSD, reduced their need for opioids, and saved their lives.
  • More patients told their storiesParents, relatives, and older friends became more comfortable talking about how medical marijuana helped them. That’s how Sen. Orrin Hatch’s mind changed on medical cannabis.
  • Conservatives got hip to the internet, where they could easily access real, accurate information—not just federal nonsense—about cannabis and its effects.
  • Old people died. To put it bluntly. Many of the oldest Americans, 77% of whom were against legalization (according to a 2010 Newsweek poll) and unlikely to change their minds, exited to the great beyond. Baby boomers, who are much more comfortable with cannabis, aged into the oldest voting demographic.
  • Young conservatives gained more power. Younger conservative voters—for whom legal medical marijuana was normal, no big deal—entered their 20s and 30s, and increasingly expressed their opinions on marijuana at the ballot box.

The Pioneer: Dana Rohrabacher

The cornerstone of the conservative legalization movement has been, and continues to be, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. In the late 1990s, when powerful Republicans like Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH), and Rep. Robert Barr (R-GA) howled against the passage of state medical marijuana laws, Rohrabacher, a conservative true believer from Orange County, chose a different path.

Rohrabacher: Re-elected after coming out for medical marijuana in 1999.

Though his own district overwhelmingly opposed California’s 1996 Prop. 215 (which legalized medical marijuana), Rohrabacher opted to vote against a non-binding Congressional resolution opposing medical cannabis in 1999.

Instead, he went on the record for medical marijuana. The following year he stood for re-election. And he won.

By getting re-elected after publicly embracing legalization, Rohrabacher showed that cannabis wasn't a career killer.

Immunized by his connections to President Ronald Reagan (for whom Rohrabacher worked as a speechwriter) and his reputation as a right-wing cowboy, Rohrabacher stood on solid conservative ground when he argued that the federal government should leave his state, and its MMJ patients, the hell alone. It was a classic Nixon-to-China move.

By retaining his seat every two years, Rohrabacher proved that legalization wasn’t a career-killer for conservatives. In 2002, he introduced the first Congressional resolution to grant state medical marijuana programs protection from federal prosecution. Twelve years later it finally passed, with bipartisan support, as the Rohrabacher–Farr budget amendment.

Rohrabacher was in the writer’s room when Reagan’s toughest war-on-drugs speeches were crafted in the 1980s. Today, he’s on Capitol Hill fighting to protect cannabis legalization in 29 states. Say what you will about his other views and his current Russian troubles. On cannabis legalization, Rohrabacher has been a courageous leader for nearly two decades. He’s a bridge between generations. Without him there would be no Tom Garrett, no Allen Peake, and no Matt Gaetz.

The New Normal: ‘Conservative Outreach Director’

I don’t want to overstate the claim. Things are changing, but more Democrats than Republicans favor legalization—among both voters and elected officials. Conservatives like Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) remain dead set against state legalization, and they are currently blocking legislation to allow cannabis banking, legal regulation in the District of Columbia, and medical marijuana protections, respectively.

But so many conservative votes have turned in favor of cannabis—or at least appear to be up for grabs—that one of the nation’s leading legalization advocacy groups employs a full-time lobbyist to focus on conservative outreach. When Congress is in session, Don Murphy prowls the halls of the Senate and House office buildings, seeking to create Republican allies on behalf of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

“If Republicans think they’re going to be defeated at the polls because of this issue, that’s the opposite of my experience,” Murphy told me recently. “I talk to lawmakers about legalization in terms of its consistency with their positions. You may not be for medical marijuana, but do you really think patients should lose their gun rights over it?”

MPP’s Don Murphy, campaigning for Florida’s Amendment 2 in 2016: ‘This issue won’t defeat you.’

Twenty-three years ago, Murphy ran for the Maryland Legislature as a law-and-order Republican. “My wife had been held up in an armed robbery,” he explained. “I ended up on a House judiciary committee, and I was voting to lock up everybody.”

One conversation opened his mind. “I had a guy come to me in the Legislature. He was a former Green Beret and a local farmer. He told me he was using marijuana with a doctor’s approval for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was helping him eat, and he was finally gaining weight. He asked me: ‘Do you think I’m a criminal?’ ‘Of course not,’ I said. ‘The law does,’ he told me. That’s when I thought, well, he’s got a point.”

“That’s how I became the accidental advocate.”

Murphy eventually connected with officials at the Marijuana Policy Project, liked what they did, and talked himself into a job as the group’s director of conservative outreach. In that role, he’s helping shape the conservative conversation around cannabis.

Talking the Talk

When it comes to reaching conservatives, language and framing can make all the difference. Some conservative leaders, Murphy says, “are 10th Amendment people.” They’re states’ rights supporters who might agree that each state should be allowed to handle cannabis as it sees fit. (The 10th Amendment to the US Constitution is the “reserved powers” clause, which holds that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”)

It's hard to argue for states' rights, and stand against legal state-regulated cannabis.

“South Carolina, their House members are strong 10th Amendment people,” Murphy told me.

The call of liberty also resounds well with many conservatives on Capitol Hill, who agree with Murphy in principle but may not want to be seen supporting marijuana because of its lingering cultural taint.

“I spoke with one member, who flies the Gadsden flag”—the Don’t Tread on Me rattlesnake—“outside his door and asked, ‘How come you’re not so good when it comes to drug policy?’ He answered me, ‘You keep doing what you’re doing, and I won’t get in your way.’”

A lot of his work, Murphy says, consists of showing how legalization embodies a conservative’s existing values and beliefs about freedom. “If this, then why not that?” he often asks Republicans.

Personal Stories Open Minds

Ann Lee, the 87-year-old founder of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), is a Texas conservative who spent most of her life assuming that “the lies the government put out” about cannabis were true.

People are often surprised to hear that 27% of NORML members identify as conservative Republicans.

Then in 1990, her son Richard was injured in an accident and found that cannabis helped him recover. She saw with her own eyes that it was true. Richard Lee went on to create Oaksterdam University, the groundbreaking cannabis educational institution in Oakland, California. Ann created her own group, RAMP, in 2012.

Leafly contributor Katie Matlack profiled Ann Lee last year. She wrote:

For Lee, the tipping point came in 2012, shortly after she and her husband attended a five-person NORML panel and realized three of the five panelists were Republicans. The next day, she founded RAMP. “We modeled ourselves after Law Enforcement Against Prohibition,” she said. 

Ann Lee: Her own son’s experience changed her mind.

That surprise is not uncommon among those who attend a NORML event. I experienced it myself at the group’s Washington, DC, conference in September, when NORML Political Director Justin Strekal revealed that 27% of the group’s members identified as conservative Republicans (38% are progressive Democrats, and 35% identify as independents).

In his lobbying work, Strekal has learned how to speak the language of both progressives and conservatives to reach them on the issue of cannabis. For progressives, it’s often an issue of social justice and racial disparities in enforcement. For conservatives, it touches the values of freedom and liberty.

“This is an issue of freedom,” Strekal says. “It’s about freedom from government overreach. Who decides what we can and can’t ingest in the privacy of our own homes?”

The Cannabis Business is Business

It’s hard to tell where Bruce Nassau falls on the political spectrum. Maybe that’s why he’s such a good entrepreneur. Nassau, the owner of Colorado-based TruCannabis, is also the head of the Marijuana Industry Group, a leading cannabis industry advocacy organization. Before he got into cannabis, Nassau made a small fortune in the cable television industry. Now he spends much of his time talking to policymakers about cannabis.

“I find that many conservatives are very easy to work with once you sit down and talk face to face,” he says. “They begin to realize that you don’t have five eyes. They see that you’re a human being, you have concerns for public safety, patients, and children.”

'We create jobs,' says Bruce Nassau. 'We create opportunity.' That's an idea most conservatives can get behind.

Nassau approaches the issue as an entrepreneur, so jobs are one of his favorite talking points. “We create jobs,” he says. “We create opportunity.”

That’s an idea conservative leaders can get behind. A 2016 Leafly investigation found that nearly 120,000 American jobs were supported by legal cannabis. By 2017 that figure had jumped to 149,000.

The cannabis industry acts as its own skills-training program, Nassau adds.

“We bring in a lot of people to work for us who might not typically be interested in working in other industries,” he says. “There are plenty of people who identify as countercultural, who don’t consider themselves traditional businesspeople. They might be turned off by the idea of working at the Home Depot or Macy’s. But when they work for us, they learn customer service skills, they learn how to operate a cash register, they learn how important a supply chain is. Pretty soon they’re skilled employees who have the ability to work where they want, live productive lives, and pay taxes.”

In legal states like Washington, Colorado, and Oregon, young budtenders and cannabis growers are gaining skills and experience, then going out on their own and creating their own businesses.

“That,” says Nassau, “goes to the heart of a conservative’s values.”

2017 cannabis jobs count: Legal marijuana supports 149,304 Americans

More Support Is Hiding, Waiting

Tom Garrett believes there’s more conservative support for cannabis reform out there, just waiting for the water to warm up. “Of the 435 votes in Congress, we’d probably have 235 in favor of getting the federal government out of the the marijuana scheduling business—if it got to the floor,” he says.

'The fight now is in the back rooms. The fight is to get a hearing and get it to the floor.'

“The fight is in the back rooms,” he adds. “The fight is to get a hearing. There are a series of gatekeepers,” he says, referring to the House committee chairs who, because those positions are often seniority-based, tend to be members of the older, anti-legalization generation. “And we need to bring political pressure to the gatekeepers.”mcc

Even some of those who publicly oppose legalization acknowledge the sea change that’s underway. During a lobbying event in September, NORML Political Director Justin Strekal ran into Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in the Russell Senate Office Building. McCain asked about the funny-looking lapel pin on Strekal’s jacket. “That’s a cannabis leaf, senator,” Strekal said, and gave his best pitch for the reform measures now circulating on Capitol Hill.

McCain, an old-school prohibitionist who has remained mostly silent on cannabis reform, smiled and parted amicably.

“Well,” said the senator, “you folks are winning.”

(Featured photo at top: Jae C. Hong/AP)

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Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott
Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.
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