Pot and the GOP

Article excerpt

Byline: Eve Conant

Is the party of 'Just Say No' morphing into the party of 'Just Say Grow'?

Ann Lee, a Texas Republican and devout Catholic, thought marijuana was the "weed of the devil." Like so many Americans, Lee believed pot was a dangerous "gateway" drug that tempted the unwary into a dissolute existence. But when Lee's son, Richard, suffered a severe spinal injury two decades ago and became paralyzed from the waist down, she was given a crash course in the devil drug. "I had to open my eyes, and I also had to pray a lot and believe in Richard's integrity," says Lee, now 81. "When I saw the good it did for Richard's spasticity, I said, 'Well, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.'?" Since then, Lee and her husband have been steadfast in their support of Richard as he opened a California medical-marijuana dispensary and founded a trade school in Oakland devoted to the study of pot, aptly named Oaksterdam University. Today Richard, 47 and a millionaire thanks to his pot business, is leading the charge for passage of Proposition 19, the controversial California ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana for personal use. And Mom and Dad, now avid Tea Partiers, are manning the phones in support of their son and his efforts.

You'd expect aging flower children to fight for the right to get high. But aging conservatives? As the ideals of the Tea Party's most vocal libertarians infiltrate the Republican ranks, and state and federal officials slash budgets even as they pump cash into an expensive war on drugs, some conservatives are making the case for legalizing marijuana. It isn't Nancy Pelosi who's speaking out in favor of legalized pot--she's been careful not to take a position on Prop 19--but rather her Republican challenger in California, John Dennis. And in Massachusetts, Barney Frank's Tea Party-backed Republican opponent, Sean Bielat, has said he leans libertarian on the issue, and it hasn't hurt his race against the longtime congressman, who strongly supports decriminalization of pot. "As you see the liberty wing of the Republican Party grow, you'll see more support for legalization," says Dennis, who drew cheers during a campaign stop recently at the International Cannabis and Hemp Expo in San Francisco, where his staff altered his campaign sign to sport Rastafarian colors and a pot leaf. Republican power broker Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, points out that legalization can make sense from a conservative perspective because it touches on issues of national security and fiscal prudence. "First, there is the mess that is Mexico. Narcoterrorism is made possible by our drug prohibition in the U.S. Then there is the cost of incarceration," he says. Gary Johnson, the Republican former governor of New Mexico and a putative presidential candidate for 2012, says he believes that "Proposition 19 has the opportunity to be the domino that could bring about rational drug policy nationwide."

Pundits like Fox News's Glenn Beck and former judge Andrew Napolitano have also joined in the debate, on the pro-legalization side. "You know what, I think it's about time we legalize marijuana. Hear me out for a second--" Beck told viewers in April. "We have to make a choice in this country. We have to either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars, or we legalize it. But this little game we're playing in the middle is not helping us, is not helping Mexico, and is causing massive violence on our southern border." Even Sarah Palin, who's opposed to legalization, has called pot a relatively "minimal problem," telling Fox Business Network this summer, "I think we need to prioritize our law-enforcement efforts. And if somebody's gonna smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody else harm, then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking at to engage in and try to clean up some of the other problems that we have in society." (Palin has copped to trying pot during the time it was decriminalized in Alaska, but said she didn't like it. …