Marijuana legalization: why tea party might support Prop. 19

Conventional wisdom says tea party conservatives would vote against marijuana legalization in California. Yet Prop. 19 could test how serious tea partyers are about states' rights.

Mike Blake/Reuters
A sticker to support Prop 19, a measure to legalize marijuana in the state of California, is seen on a power pole in San Francisco, Oct. 28.

Ronald Reagan didn't start the war on drugs, but he made it a mainstay of his presidency. So it would make sense for tea party members who are inspired by Mr. Reagan to oppose Proposition 19 in California, which would legalize marijuana possession.

But conventional wisdom and current small-government electoral fervor may meet in a strange (and potentially smoky) place on Election Day.

Instead of opposing Prop. 19, parts of the tea party – including some of its stalwarts like Tom Tancredo in Colorado and Rand Paul in Kentucky – have hailed drug legalization as an ideological linchpin in the fight between progressivism (a broader role for government) and the ideals of states' rights (get the government out of living rooms).

Whether or not tea party conservatives and libertarians – the two main strands of the powerful political insurgency movement – will help put Prop. 19 over the top is an open question. But some commentators are seeing anecdotal support among many tea partyers for marijuana legalization in California.

In the end, the Prop. 19 vote could provide a key insight into whether the tea party can breach the GOP's culture-war walls – or whether law-and-order drug enforcement will remain the conservative party line.

"I thought Prop. 19 was going to be more of a liberal Democratic thing, and then suddenly I find, hey, I'm wrong," says Leo Laurence, a former California sheriff's deputy and currently a writer and pro-legalization activist at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "I had written that the tea party would probably oppose it, but then I got phone calls saying, 'No, you're wrong on that.' Tea party people have a very strong position that the government has no right to get involved in your private affairs ... when you're not hurting yourself or somebody else. And that's basically Prop. 19 in a nutshell."

If Prop. 19 passes and the Obama Justice Department challenges it in court, as it has promised to do, the tea party could paint a crackdown as more evidence of an overarching government that has little respect for the rights of states to self-determine.

Yet the poll numbers don't necessarily indicate that things will turn out this way. Republicans oppose the measure by 65 percent to 25 percent, and those over age 60 are against it by 63 percent to 29 percent, according to the nonpartisan Field Poll.

Don Polson, a columnist and Realtor in Tehama County, Calif., chimes in with a more traditional assessment of marijuana legalization, even citing a tea party group: "Tea Party Patriots and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association say: Prop 19 NO [F]or obvious reasons pot should not be further encouraged among our young people," he writes in the Red Bluff Daily News.

What's more, overall support for the initiative has been flagging amid opposition from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and most of the state's newspaper editorial boards. Down from a peak of 49 percent support, polls now put it at 42 percent, again according to the Field Poll.

Still, as the marijuana-legalization movement matures, it could become a rallying cry for tea party-style politicians. When Mr. Tancredo, a gubernatorial candidate in Colorado, made a speech in support of drug legalization, his poll numbers shot up.

Even some outright Republicans have eased their opposition to marijuana legalization, with support growing by 7 percent since 2005, according to Gallup. Nearly 50 percent of independents – whom both parties are energetically wooing – support legalization, also according to Gallup.

"The Tea Party movement runs parallel to the Republican Party, which traditionally has taken a very firm law-and-order, just-say-no approach to the drug question," writes the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch in an editorial. "But the Tea Party movement also has a strong libertarian streak, and its live-and-let-live approach to issues of personal morality troubles social and religious conservatives who think government should manage people's private lives."

In a July story entitled "Why the tea party is the hidden force behind legal pot," Esquire magazine pointed to the growth of libertarianism as well as concerns about Mexico's violent drug war as reasons for the shift among many US conservatives toward legalization. Mexican drug cartels make up to 70 percent of their profits from illicit sales of marijuana in the United States.

More simply, "People don't want government telling them what they can use to unwind with after work," Mike Meno of the Marijuana Policy Project told Esquire.

But Charles Postel, a political historian at San Francisco State University, says the emerging model of tea party-GOP relations can be most clearly seen in Texas. There, the tea party-inspired platform of the Republican Party espouses libertarian economic ideals but vows to ratchet up marijuana misdemeanor offenses to felonies.

"There's a very strong conservative tradition in this country, and part of it has been libertarian on questions of the economy [but] has always had a very strong repressive streak on other issues," says Mr. Postel. "I don't think it's ever been easy to separate those two things."

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