• November 28, 2020

Inside the GOP Civil War Over Marijuana

 Inside the GOP Civil War Over Marijuana

Republican voters support marijuana legalization, but GOP leaders still oppose it. Photo by Lizzy Oakley Photography

The Republican Party is at a crossroads when it comes to marijuana policy, but you wouldn’t know that if you merely listened to GOP leaders in Washington. While the majority of Republican voters – and a handful of GOP candidates – now support cannabis legalization in one form or another, Republican leaders spent the summer and now the fall mocking Democrats over their marijuana reform efforts.  

It’s not that Republican GOP leaders can’t read polls, like one from PEW last year that shows two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization, including 55 percent of Republicans. That’s national, and – as the saying goes – politics is local. No one knows that better than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Sure, only 51 percent of GOP voters in his home state of Kentucky – a majority; if a tiny one – favor legalizing recreational marijuana, but a whopping 90 percent of Republican voters in the Bluegrass State support medical marijuana (which the state House passed earlier this spring before coronavirus lockdowns derailed the effort in the state Senate).  

Those lopsided numbers aren’t news to the Republican political class.

“I have polled it in Kentucky,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) told The News Station. “I polled it in 2014, and I polled Republicans. Two-thirds of Republicans supported medical marijuana, but three-quarters of Republicans in my congressional district supported letting the states decide, even though a majority of them don’t support legalization.”  

Massie’s got libertarian leanings, but, after those polls, his position now fully mirrors his constituents: “Get rid of the federal prohibition and let the states decide.”

The five-term lawmaker bemoans that Democratic leaders plan to bring up the progressive MORE Act – which decriminalizes marijuana federally and invests money from federal taxes on cannabis into the communities hurt most by the war on ‘drugs.’ He says Republicans could get on board if it were just a bill ending the federal prohibition.

“I think it’s really unfortunate that the Democrats politicized their own bill. It made it not just hard to get Republican support, but also it looks like they lost Democrat support,” Massie said. “They should just do a straight up clean [decriminalization bill] – take it off the controlled substances list.”

Massie knows marijuana is popular, especially with younger voters, and he also knows neither party has staked a definitive claim in the issue yet.

“I think my party is a little bit behind on this, but the Democrats are too. The first party that does this gets like another 4% [of support] on a straight ballot,” Massie said.

Still, despite the obvious groundswell of support from Republican voters – and those all-important Independents – President Trump’s top generals laugh off cannabis while GOP leaders in Congress spent the summer and fall using marijuana to score political points against Democrats.

When pressed on his stance on marijuana by The News Station, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy once again ripped on Democrats, while also dismissing the MORE Act.

“You come from a state where marijuana is legal? What’s your position on that…just broadly?” I asked at a Capitol Hill press conference last month. “And then what do you think of that legislation specifically?”

“Well, if I watched – and this goes directly back to the COVID relief bill – the Democrats brag about the bill they voted on. You know how many times it mentioned ‘jobs’? A lot fewer than it mentioned ‘cannabis,’” McCarthy replied. “I don’t support their bill.”

McCarthy never answered my question on whether he supports his state’s own decision to legalize both medicinal and recreational marijuana. Though it’s clear he thinks cannabis businesses are second class, because for months he’s bemoaned their inclusion in Democrat’s coronavirus stimulus bills.

That strategy is incomprehensible to advocates in 2020, especially now that 33 states, US territories and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis in one form or another.

“It flies in the face of political reality that one of the major parties would double down on the failed policy of prohibition over the will of its own rank and file voters,” Justin Strekal, the political director of marijuana advocacy group NORML, told The News Station.

That’s not lost on a handful of Republicans, especially with known teetotaler Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential nominee. Biden gave the GOP a huge opening earlier this summer when he angered progressives, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), by moving the party away from legalization – which the DNC endorsed in 2016 – and settling on mere decriminalization in the party’s 2020 platform.

“I’m trying to get my party to move forward. I don’t know why the Democrats are moving backwards,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told The News Station over the summer.

If anything, America’s burgeoning marijuana industry seems to now be the retirement home of choice for many contemporary Republican politicians, from former House Speaker John Boehner (who, as a board member, is awaiting an estimated $20 million pay day from Acreage Holdings once cannabis is legalized federally) to rank and file Republicans, like former Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Ryan Costello, Jeff Denham, and Dana Rohrabacher.   

A handful of House Republicans support reforms, including Trump ally Rep. Gaetz and the longest serving member of Congress, Rep. Don Young of Alaska. In the Senate, more vulnerable Republicans from state’s that have legalized recreational marijuana are on board, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.  

And on the virtual campaign trail, a few Republican GOP candidates are also coming behind decriminalization, like Dr. Tre Pennie – a Republican congressional candidate in the Dallas area.  

Dr. Tre Pennie is a Republican congressional candidate in the Dallas area.

In North Carolina, Republican Madison Cawthorn – along with his Democratic opponent – endorsed marijuana legalization earlier this year. That’s also the case in Missouri, where GOP congressional candidate Ryan Derks went a step further and ripped Big PhaRMA and said it’s time to “repeal the war on drugs.”

Republican Ryan Derks is running for Congress in Missouri. Image via his Instagram.

Advocates see these endorsements from Republicans as progress for the party’s rank and file, but they also know they represent just a sliver of the GOP political class. That’s changing though.

In 2016 North Dakota voters legalized medical marijuana. They were slated to vote on recreational marijuana this November, but coronavirus lockdowns derailed the signature drive needed to get it to qualify for the ballot. That’s why even Republicans in North Dakota aren’t ripping on Democrats for pushing marijuana decriminalization efforts.

“I wouldn’t frame their positioning of it as being a bad strategy necessarily,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) told The News Station, before adding that the optics just felt off this year because a pandemic is raging and civil unrest continues to boil over. “It’s an odd priority, and maybe that’s part of the problem – that it appears to be more important than other things. But, you know, every issue needs and has a champion.”

Still, pandemic-era optics aside, Cramer says marijuana’s popularity isn’t lost on any Republican – including party leaders – these days.

“We know, the public’s changing,” Cramer said. “I mean, that’s not a secret.”

Matt Laslo

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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