Much ink has been spilt in describing the precise nature of the soul-searching the GOP is undergoing in the wake of getting totally shellacked last Tuesday. There are a plethora of suggestions — of varying degrees of helpfulness — as to how the Republican party can re-brand and re-orient itself; ranging from capitulating on taxes to deciding that gay marriage isn’t a hill to die on. But there’s one easy ideological maneuver that Republicans could make that would simultaneously burnish their stance as the party of freedom and expand their base while alienating the president from his. It is a move that might also make one swing state a little easier to win in 2016. Congressional Republicans and conservative leaders could get on the weed bandwagon.
Now, the John Boehners and Mitch McConnells of the world may never win the loyalty of the Choom Gang contingent. But Republicans should rejoice with those who rejoiced when voters in Colorado and Washington passed sensible marijuana policy. Last Tuesday, both states passed ballot measures decriminalizing the recreational use of medical marijuana — and giving the GOP an early Christmas present.
Most of us are familiar with the arguments for and against marijuana legalization — it’s non-addictive and (mostly) harmless; it’s not as bad for you as alcohol; it’s a gateway drug; it funds violent drug cartels; it’s too expensive to be worth taxing; etc. etc. ad nauseam. It’s probably not helpful to rehash all those here. The short version is this: A lot of smart people think weed is the devil, and a lot of other smart people like to toke up on weekends because, come on man, it’s just a plant and it grows in the ground.
On Tuesday, the people of Washington State and Colorado sided with the latter. They aren’t the first to ditch the metaphorical Keep off the Grass signs. Medical marijuana is legal in California and Massachusetts, and the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor — Warning: This will not surprise you — has functionally decriminalized possession. This should hearten those fond of federalism. Remember, you don’t have to like THC to hate Washington, D.C. As a general rule, states’ assertion of autonomy is good news for friends of limited government, rendering the question not how conservatives should feel about marijuana decriminalization, but rather how they should respond to it.
This is especially important because the Obama administration could have given Republicans the perfect opportunity to signal an ideological re-emphasis. The White House is surprisingly uncool when it comes to toking up: A Reuters piece that Charles C. W. Cooke noted on the Corner last week reports that the victories are largely symbolic. Ken Sabet, former assistant to Obama’s drug czar, said that state leaders “are facing an uphill battle with implementing this, in the face of . . . presidential opposition and in the face of federal enforcement opposition.” In other words, the Obama administration cares more about maintaining the concentration of federal power than preventing thousands of bored college students from getting arrested for doing exactly what the president did when he was a bored college student.
For the GOP, this is more than just an opening; it’s a magical messaging moment, which, to paraphrase Rahm Emanuel, conservatives shouldn’t let go to waste. “This is a classic example of where they can walk the walk,” says Tim Lynch of the Cato Institute. This isn’t really a drug-legalization issue; it’s a states’ rights issue and a limited-powers issue. All conservatives have to agree on is that the federal government might have better things to do with its freshly printed money than try to enforce a nigh-unenforceable law that local voters and leaders think was a bad idea in the first place.
That’s how Clarence Thomas sees it, too. In his dissenting opinion in Gonzales v. Raich — a case that decided that California couldn’t allow home-grown medical marijuana — Thomas wrote that “local cultivation and consumption of marijuana is not ‘Commerce . . . among the several States.’” And, therefore, it’s not in the purview of the Feds. “Our federalist system,” he continued, “properly understood, allows California and a growing number of other States to decide for themselves how to safeguard the health and welfare of their citizens.”
Just sub “Washington and Colorado” for “California,” and you have a constitutionally sound, politically popular, stupidly simple criticism of the White House. If the GOP is going to be competitive in 2016, it has to communicate to young people that intrusive federal government makes their lives worse. It has to communicate that it’s the party that respects personal choice and individual responsibility. And it would probably help to communicate that when in doubt, the GOP doesn’t automatically take the side of the insanely expensive branch of the federal government that breaks into people’s homes, shoots their dogs, and imprisons them because they added a funny ingredient to their brownies.
Supporting the autonomy of Colorado and Washington won’t save the conservative movement. But it would be a step in the right direction. And, just like smoking a joint every now and then, it wouldn’t hurt.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.