Whither Republicans on Pot Legalization?

Media attention at the annual CPAC clambake is naturally focused on the plenary session headliners, in part because the whole show is generally regarded by the MSM as an “invisible primary” event for the next presidential cycle (an interpretation encouraged by the presidential straw poll released at the end of the conference). But CPACs also feature plenty of breakout sessions and panel discussions where the mood of the attendees is expressed with greater clarity than is afforded by measurements of the volume of the feral roars they emit in response to the bellowing rage they hear from the plenary session podium.

The Atlantic‘s Molly Ball attended one such panel discussion, on pot legalization, and harvested some interesting impressions:

Christopher Beach was trying to defend keeping marijuana illegal to a roomful of conservatives, and it was not going well.

When Beach insisted the drug war has not been a complete failure, laughter rippled through the crowd.

When he said governments sometimes have to protect people from themselves, there were groans and boos.

One after another, audience members stood to quibble with his statistics and accuse him of bad faith. As the discussion drew to a close with yet another hostile blast in his direction, Beach mumbled into his microphone, “This is just getting more fun.”

Beach’s panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference, titled “Rocky Mountain High: Does Legalized Pot Mean Society’s Going Up In Smoke?,” was ostensibly a debate. I attended expecting to find conservatives divided on the question, which seems to pit Republican cultural conservatism against the party’s ascendant libertarian strain.

But the discussion—which pitted Beach, a producer for the Morning in America radio show hosted by former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, against Mary Katharine Ham, a conservative blogger and Fox News contributor—turned out to be surprisingly one-sided.

Now as Ball notes, CPAC events tend to draw a disproportionate number of Paulite college students, who have both ideological and probably personal reasons for wanting to get government out of the weed, so to speak. But Beach glumly told her this sort of thing happens to him all the time, in media appearances as well as conservative conferences.

Since polls shows self-identified GOP voters still oppose legalized doobies by nearly a two-to-one margin, what are Republican pols supposed to do? You could argue that Beach’s experience shows the intensity on this subject on the Right comes from the pro-legalization minority. But it’s still a minority.

This is a delicious dilemma for progressives. But they should take to heart the warnings of Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Rauch, and Jonathan Caulkins in the new issue of the Washington Monthly that botched legalization initiatives in the states could generate a backlash, along with some terrible public health consequences. In addition, a more carefully regulated legalization regime might keep Republicans squirming on the horns of their dilemma on this subject for quite a long time, even as Drug War illusions go up in smoke.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.