Yesterday The Atlantic's Molly Ball attended a debate about marijuana legalization at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and came away convinced that critics of the war on drugs are ascendant within the conservative movement. The debate pitted conservative blogger and Fox News commentator Mary Katharine Ham against Christopher Beach, a producer for former drug czar Bill Bennett's radio show. Ball reports that the discussion "turned out to be surprisingly one-sided," with the audience, or at least the most vocal parts of it, overwhelmingly in favor of legalization, the position taken by Ham. Ball acknowledges that CPAC skews young and libertarian, but she says Beach told her he typically gets a hostile response when he defends prohibition in the company of fellow conservatives. "There used to be a strong conservative coalition opposed to drugs, but it's dissipated in the face of mounting public support for legalization," Beach says. "We're fighting against the tide on this."
To longtime opponents of the war on drugs, those are pretty startling words. Back in the 1980s, when I started writing about drug prohibition, Gallup found that less than a quarter of Americans thought marijuana should be legal. My own father wanted to know whether I really believed what I was saying or was just in it for the money. I am not sure which answer would have been worse from his perspective. Eventually he decided that advocating drug legalization was a respectable position, since it had attracted support from serious people like Milton Friedman and Bill Buckley. Today he mails me clippings about medical marijuana from Israeli newspapers.
My father, who will turn 89 this year, is part of "the only age group that still opposes legalizing marijuana," according to a Gallup poll conducted last fall. Overall support for legalization was 58 percent in that poll, and the breakdown by age went like this:
18 to 29: 67 percent
30 to 49: 62 percent
50 to 64: 56 percent
65+: 45 percent
The results were similar in a CNN poll conducted in January:
Two-thirds of those 18 to 34 said marijuana should be legal, with 64% of those 34 to 49 in agreement.
Half of those 50 to 64 believe marijuana should be legal, but that number dropped to 39% for those age 65 and older.
According to Gallup, only 35 percent of Republicans favor marijuana legalization, meaning they are more inclined to support pot prohibition than retirees are. As Ball observes, this situation creates a dilemma for the Republican Party:
The situation closely parallels the party's predicament on gay marriage, which most Republicans still oppose even as widening majorities of the broader public support it.
It adds up to a quandary for the GOP: Should it embrace the unpopular position still disproportionately favored by its members and risk marginalization as a result? Or will the burgeoning conservative voices in favor of legalization win out? Simply put, do Republicans want to be on the losing side of yet another culture war?
It will be interesting to see how they answer that question. In the meantime, I am trying to get used to the weird feeling of swimming with the tide.
[Thanks to March Sandhaus for the tip.]