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. 

Clem Britt/AP/File
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.

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.

“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.

“Clearly he is ill-informed about the drug war,” says Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation. She says in 1978, 58 percent of high school seniors had used an illicit drug in the past year, compared with 28 percent in 1992 – more than a 50 percent drop.

The numbers have crept back up to 40 percent, a trend she attributes both to the 16 states and Washington, D.C., which have legalized the medical use of marijuana, as well as the big push in California last fall to legalize recreational use through Proposition 19.

But she adds, “We are still well below the 1978 usage rate, hardly a complete failure.” 

For Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the recent trends relate to a bigger picture. Polls have been shifting for three decades, showing that voters of all ages and both parties support regulating cannabis like alcohol, he says. At least 70 percent of Americans support legalizing medical marijuana, he says.

“When a person like Pat Robertson realizes that the immorality of jailing nonviolent marijuana users, keeping medicine away from the sick, and contributing to murder and mayhem in Latin America is far, far worse that the supposed immorality of using marijuana, we have reached a positive turning point in the debate," adds Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project in an e-mail. “We are starting to see more people's moral judgments aligning themselves with the realities of marijuana prohibition.”

Critics, however, worry that Robertson's comments only hurt antidrug efforts.  

“If you work and live in the world of addiction, a world where you have your sleeves rolled up and are dealing with the true impact that drugs have on society, you just may have something to say to people like Pat Robertson, who so cavalierly come out with a statement like this,” says Richard Taite, founder of Cliffside Malibu, an addiction treatment center, in an e-mail.

Adds Robert DuPont, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health: “I think he’s acting out of his sense of compassion and thinks he is being reasonable, but that he is drinking the Kool-Aid of the pro-marijuana forces.” 

Recently, Robertson said that God could have stopped the tornadoes that swept the Midwest if more people had been praying. He also said in December that homosexual people can "un-acquire" the lifestyle. 

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