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Pat Robertson backs legal marijuana. Will other conservatives follow?

Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson has called for legal marijuana, saying the US incarceration rate is taking a social toll. Advocates call it an important moment, but critics dismiss it. 

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / March 9, 2012

The Rev. Pat Robertson talks to attendees at a prayer breakfast at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., in this file photo. The religious broadcaster said he supports legal marijuana.

Clem Britt/AP/File

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Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson has become the lightning rod for a fresh, national dialogue over legal marijuana. He says the government’s war on drugs has failed and so marijuana should be legalized and treated like alcohol.

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“Folks, we've gotta do something about this. We've just got to change the laws. We cannot allow this to continue. It is sapping our vitality. Think of this great land of freedom,” he said last week as host of “The 700 Club” on the Christian Broadcasting Network based in Virginia Beach, Va.

Marijuana advocates, not surprisingly, are applauding the move while antidrug groups are attacking Mr. Robertson’s credibility, saying he has made several “strange remarks” in the past five years about prayer, tornadoes, and homosexuals.

Robertson’s status as a high-profile conservative, however, makes his remarks symbolically important and indicative of wider shifts, say some academic observers. 

“He’s wrong about many things, but the fact that he is someone who usually represents the extreme conservative point of view makes the coming legalization debate more wide open now,” says Robert MacCoun a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, who follows marijuana laws.

Noting that Colorado and Washington have ballot measures this fall that would allow people over 21 to possess a small amount of marijuana and allow for commercial pot sales, Professor MacCoun says the Robertson comment helps break up polarized discussions.

“We can now have a more grown up discussion about what are the tools in the tool box – rather than just hyperlatives hurled at each side from the extremes,” he says.

That could include current politics.  

“It will be interesting to see how the tea party and presidential candidates will treat what Robertson is saying,” says Robert Langran, a political scientist at Villanova University in Philadelphia. “Depending on what Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum say and do, this has the potential of creating another rift in the Republican Party.”

Noting that America makes up 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of jailed prisoners, Robertson said: “We've said, 'We're conservative, we're tough on crime.' That's baloney. It's costing us billions and billions of dollars. We need to scrub the federal code and the state codes and take away these criminal penalties.”

Antidrug groups take issue with Robertson's judgment.

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