Are Republicans Coming Around on Drug Policy?

First Pat Robertson…

… now John McCain. Or that’s what I thought when I saw the HuffPo headline:

John McCain On Marijuana:
‘Maybe We Should Legalize’

Actually, that’s not quite right. McCain was saying something more subtle, and it mostly wasn’t about marijuana.

First, he made a perfectly sensible point about drug policy generally: as long as there’s a demand for illicit drugs in the U.S., there will be a supply from Mexico, which puts the onus for Mexican bloodshed above the border and not below it. (Later he went on to say that we ought to have a “conversation” about drug-related incarceration.)

Responding to shouts of “Legalize it!,” McCain said:

Well, maybe we should legalize it. We are certainly moving that way so far as marijuana is concerned, but I will respect the will of the people.

Since the problem he was discussing was drug smuggling, which is mostly drugs other than cannabis, I take “Maybe we should legalize it” to be about all drugs, not just cannabis. Then he notes that the actual trend of policy is in that direction as far as marijuana is concerned. I’m not sure what interpretation to put on “I will respect the will of the people,” unless it means “I’m not for it unless the polls back me up.”

So no, I don’t think McCain was really joining the Robertson camp. But it does seem as if he might go much further than that – might vote to get rid of the drug laws altogether – if he thought the voters would let him get away with it. Complete legalization of everyting is probably a bad idea, and certainly an idea without much mass support. But it has a lot more hidden elite support than you might guess. And McCain seems to think he can now get away with flirting with the idea. His belief on that point is evidence.

Friends of marijuana legalization – a much more plausible idea, in my view, than legalizing cocaine or meth – should, I think, take heart from learning that McCain isn’t really coming out on their side. After all, what are the odds that Robertson and McCain are both right about something? Pretty long, I figure.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.