The former Alaska governor has called marijuana a “minimal problem.” Will her supporters embrace state-level efforts to legalize the drug?

By Kelley Beaucar Vlahos

What’s more novel than hearing Tea Party empress Sarah Palin say the word “joint”? How about hearing her say people who smoke them should be left alone?

“I’m not for the legalization of pot because that I think would just encourage, especially our young people, to think that it’s okay to go ahead and use it,” she told Fox News’ Andrew Napolitano in June. Yet, she continued,

I think we need to prioritize our law-enforcement efforts, and if somebody is going to smoke a joint in their house and not do anybody else any harm then perhaps there are other things our cops should be looking to engage in and try to clean up some of the other problems that we have in society that are appropriate for law enforcement to do, and not concentrate on such a relatively speaking minimal problem that we have in the country.

Palin may be trying to have it both ways. But her casual language about “smoking a joint” and quip that police might have something more “appropriate … to do” than busting marijuana users are a new twist from a politician with such a strong following among social conservatives.

Whether Palin was expressing her libertarian side or merely saying what Napolitano’s audience wanted to hear, her words signal a change in the debate. And Palin wields the power to do what the marijuana-reform lobby has so far been unable to accomplish: prevail upon conservative Republicans to support changing state laws and ending the 73-year-old federal prohibition of marijuana.

“Palin represents the new far right breed of fundamentalist Christian social conservative stoner libertarians. Oh my aching head,” wrote LittleGreenFootballs.com blogger Charles Johnson upon hearing her remarks.

Was she just blowing smoke? Michael Boldin of the federalist Tenth Amendment Center thinks so. “I wasn’t very impressed by the statement,” he says. She was “just playing to the audience.” But Palin’s supporters in the Tea Party movement may be another matter—their anti-government attitudes and emphasis on decentralization may be the bridge that joins conservatives to the cause of marijuana decriminalization.

Boldin agrees that even dyed-in-the-wool Republicans now seem slightly more open to discussion: “They say, ‘we agree the federal government should not be involved’.” And while they may want to see the drug remain illegal in their state, “they say, ‘if they want [legalization] in California, that’s alright with me.’”

“I think that’s a big step,” Boldin concedes.

A test of conservatives’ commitment to federalism in this area is fast approaching. California will put full legalization to a referendum in November. Proposition 19 would “regulate, tax and control” marijuana, making it legal for every adult in the state, not just those who have already been obtaining the drug under the medical marijuana law passed in 1996. If it passes, will the Tea Parties support California against the federal government’s drug laws?

Recent polls show the referendum could go either way. Californians have become more open to legalization after seeing that the state did not implode once the 1996 law was passed—and because legalization could annually bring in upwards of $200 million in tax revenue (though opponents dispute that figure) to replenish the state’s empty coffers.

“The day the debate turned to finances and the bean counters took it over it was, in my view, [the day] the laws would be reformed,” says Allen St. Pierre, president of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “I rarely find myself talking about the health risks of cannabis anymore, and most of time I’m asked, ‘what are the tax benefits of legalization?’”

So far Republicans have hardly played a role in generating support for Prop 19. The statewide GOP candidates grabbing the media spotlight—Senate nominee Carly Fiorina and gubernatorial contender Meg Whitman, who called marijuana “a gateway drug whose use would expand greatly among our children if it were to be legalized”—are plainly against the proposition. The California Democratic Party, for its part, has remained neutral on Prop 19, while Whitman’s opponent, Attorney General Jerry Brown, has spoken out against it.

And the Tea Partiers? The movement has been silent even as two red states—Arizona and South Dakota—prepare to go to the polls in November to vote on whether to adopt new medical marijuana initiatives.

“It’s not an issue that the Tea Party movement is focused on or concerned about,” says Rob Gaudet, a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, which brings together more than 1,000 groups across the country through its online portal, www.teapartypatriots.org. “There might be some individual Tea Party groups in an area where it is a highly discussed topic, but in general, the Tea Party won’t be paying much attention to it. It’s not a national issue, it’s not even on our radar.”

That’s a shame, says Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., one of the few Republicans in the House of Representatives who has publicly supported state reform efforts, medical marijuana, and ending the federal ban.

“The Tea Party movement is basically an anti-big government movement and the whole argument about marijuana is to get the government out of people’s lives, so there is a consistency there that resonates,” he tells TAC.

Rohrabacher finds common cause with former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, a possible 2012 Republican presidential contender who makes no secret of his support for legalization. Then there is Rohrabacher’s fellow Golden State congressman Tom McClintock, who applauded a 2009 directive by the Obama Justice Department to end raids on California medical-marijuana dispensaries.

“I think wherever you stand on marijuana laws, it’s clearly a state’s decision to make,” McClintock told the Fresno Bee at the time. “And the people of California made it. I’ve never believed that the federal government had the right to regulate intrastate commerce.”

Rohrabacher believes that “the economic argument behind marijuana” will get conservatives on board. Prosecuting marijuana offenses, he says, “is of an enormous cost to us. Almost every conservative with a libertarian streak can see that. Other conservatives, who are concerned with there being a strong government and the moral fiber of the people being bolstered by strong government, are not persuaded by the fiscal argument. They are people who I bump into who are behind the curve, who are basing their political decisions on 20 or 30 years ago.”

He notes that the drug war has led to a “law-enforcement complex” akin to the “military-industrial complex,” and it is wasting tax dollars in much the same way. “This is making us less safe,” Rohrabacher insists. “We have limited dollars—you are only going to have so many prison beds … so much time for police officers to patrol your street and protect the people, instead of busting down someone’s door because they’re smoking some marijuana inside. Times have changed.”

Recent nationwide polls indicate that most Republicans still oppose legalization, though the numbers in support are slowly climbing. A January ABC/Washington Post survey found 32 percent of Republicans (and 30 of percent self-described conservatives) favored legalization—up from the 28 percent of Republicans (and 27 percent of conservatives) who responded affirmatively in an October 2009 Gallup poll.

The real traction among this group is for medical marijuana—72 percent of Republicans now say they support it, according to the ABC/Washington Post survey. “If you look at the polls, it’s not as partisan as people might think,” says Mike Meno of the Marijuana Policy Project. There are “healthy margins of support from Republicans all over the country.”

So perhaps Sarah Palin has accurately sensed some political advantage in supporting marijuana reform—even if the Tea Partiers remain diffident.

“It is slightly frustrating for me personally,” says NORML’s St. Pierre when asked about the whether there has been much support from the Tea Party movement. “How could they possibly support another seven years of federal marijuana prohibition? When I talk to these individuals—and I have been talking to them for years—they are quite libertarian on this topic, but many of them have not ‘outed’ themselves politically.”

“Almost 200 people running as Tea Party candidates, and none of them have mentioned marijuana reform,” St. Pierre notes. “I think they just fear they will not be taken seriously.”

Even Sarah Palin may not be taken seriously when she hints at marijuana reform. But St. Pierre believes the softening of the rhetoric indicates a new Republican reality—and suggests a generational attitude shift among conservatives.

“Her brand of Republicanism will probably be closer to what we will see in five to ten years, more so than older Sen. John McCain, who’s not willing to yield on something as little as being able to use marijuana in your own home.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a reporter in the Washington, D.C. area.

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