Can the Republican Party overcome its libertarian habits and resist the enormously popular, and big-business-backed, push to legalize pot? It’s a tough test of how far the party will go to protect ordinary Americans from the ravages of a not-so-harmless vice.
Much of the controversy that once surrounded cannabis has dissipated. Support for legalization, for both medical and recreational use, was at an all time high last year, with at least 60 percent of adults supporting full legalization, and only 8 percent saying the drug shouldn’t be legal for any reason. Republicans as well as Democrats have bought into the movement—notably former House Speaker John Boehner, who once opposed legal weed but now sits on the board of a marijuana investment firm.
Still, some debate persists. At a recent Senate hearing on the issue, those in the pro-legalization camp claimed that hysteria over cannabis doesn’t take the current understanding of the drug into account. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, a pro-legalization advocate, argued that federal laws are out of sync with the legal status of the drug in many states, and that lives are ruined by harsh sentences for possession and use, both of which are mostly true. Journalist Alex Berenson, on the other hand, testified to the deleterious effects of cannabis, having reported widely on the evidence that it can cause psychosis and violence. While Berenson’s approach is controversial, and some of his findings disputed, his basic thesis has been vindicated by an array of scientific studies.
THC (the more potent compound found in cannabis) and CBD can be extracted from the plant and consumed in a variety of methods and at a variety of levels, with the average joint containing 25 percent THC. Today, many are using vape products containing up to 90 percent THC (most joints in the 1970s contained around 2 percent). This kind of consumption makes for dramatic effects, such as intense anxiety and vomiting. The average frequency of use has increased considerably over time, as well. Heavy, frequent users can experience psychotic episodes without any pre-existing mental conditions, and people with those conditions are far more likely to snap while under the influence. Recent examples of cannabis-linked violence include the Uvalde and Highland Park shootings. This is not to mention the toll drugs take on an addict’s wallet. Cannabis being “less dangerous” (meaning less directly lethal) than other illegal drugs is a red herring: it’s unquestionably destructive, especially to American youth.
Cannabis hurts individuals, communities, and nations. As Compact columnist Leila Mechoui pointed out recently, when states pursue policies merely geared towards reducing harm, they reduce the incentive for users to seeking escape from addiction. Policies that treat addiction as inevitable become self-fulfilling. The new permissive regime enables people to numb themselves to the social decay that has increased propensity to addiction—a convenient way for officials to let themselves off the hook for the policies that brought us here in the first place.
Partly for that reason, the legalization effort chugs steadily along, and won’t stop for the science nor for the objections of a few senators and journalists. Only strong leaders willing to seriously take on both the failure of the War on Drugs and that of harm-reduction policies will enable us to address the crisis. Unfortunately, given the popularity of cannabis, such leaders are in short supply, including and perhaps especially in the Republican Party.
Many GOP voters are looking for a new Trump, because the 45th president will be hard-pressed to win another presidential election. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis looks like one of the strongest replacements, and voters have seen he is willing to use state power to pursue socially conservative ends. On this basis, liberal media outlets have labeled him an authoritarian theocrat.
On cannabis, however, DeSantis is mostly aligned with the liberal mainstream. Complaining about the “putrid” odor that dominates cities is about the most outspoken he seems to get on the subject of recreational marijuana. He has indicated he is strongly in favor of medical use, stating in 2019, “Here in Florida, we must have a pathway for those who have a medical need to smoke marijuana to do so!” But DeSantis’s middle-of-the-road position on the issue leaves out a basic fact: Medical cannabis is not separate from full legalization.
During the 1980s and 1990s, those in favor of cannabis legalization hit upon a highly effective propaganda strategy when they introduced the phrase “medical marijuana” into public discourse. The implication that cannabis had medical applications made people re-evaluate the risks of the drug. Polls show that by 1999, while only 29 percent of Americans supported full legalization, 73 percent favored making medical marijuana legal to prescribe. The shift toward perception of cannabis as a benign substance put the country on the path toward a majority acceptance of legalization. This was by design. Berenson has commented, “Medical legalization created a community of dispensaries and flowers with a financial interest in full legalization. And it produced a stalemate between state and federal laws that allowed that community to flourish.” Medical cannabis was always a means, not an end.
In the intervening decades, cannabis has been prescribed for cancer, nausea, depression, anxiety, and dementia. However, the hypothesis that cannabis had medicinal uses was never truly tested, and has been mostly debunked. A 2017 study from the National Academy of Medicine found no evidence that cannabinoids help cancer, and found on the contrary that they were associated with certain kinds of cancer. Cannabis has also been shown to worsen anxiety and PTSD. The only conditions that cannabis can demonstrably treat are chemotherapy nausea and muscle spasms; CBD is also used to treat rare forms of epilepsy, and can be an effective calming agent. However, no cannabinoid outperforms standard pain-killers.
None of these findings has made a dent in public perception on the issue. Americans now believe in the innocence of cannabis. Justifying his position on the matter, DeSantis has largely deferred to his constituents, 70 percent of whom voted to legalize medical use. His medical cannabis policy is, in large part, based on voter preference, not any identifiable principle. If he were elected president, how would he respond to the 60 percent of Americans who support full legalization? He may take what seems like a principled stand against teaching gender theory in public schools—but of course, that also just so happens to be a popular position.
As the cannabis issue reveals, DeSantis is neither the principled social conservative much of the GOP base sees him as nor the illiberal populist the media warn us about. Instead, he is something like a Republican “popularist,” to use the term favored by Democratic strategists for following the polls and being guided by the public’s preferences.
Back in the 1970s, some social conservatives already saw that the laissez-faire attitudes of many in the GOP made them likely to accept laxer drug laws. The emergence of cannabis as yet another business interest has sealed the deal. No wonder, then, that talk show host and longtime legalization advocate Bill Maher thinks Republicans will steal cannabis legalization as an issue. He may be right, but it won’t take a Boehner to make it happen. All you need is a demagogue.