Pro-Pot Campaigns Recruit the Right

By Tony O'Neill 10/16/12

Marijuana activists appeal to individualism and states' rights to win over prominent Republicans.

Republican Tom Tancredo joins the pro-
legalization movement.
Photo via

While prohibitionists like Bill O’Reilly would have you believe that anti-prohibitionists are a bunch of “far left loons,” the truth is far more complicated. Activists in Colorado, Oregon and Washington—the latest marijuana legalization front lines—have been joined by some serious conservative voices, with Republican Tom Tancredo joining now-Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Ron Paul. Mark Slaugh, one of the volunteers for Colorado's pro-pot Proposition 64, has been successfully campaigning in locales that might seem like enemy territory at first glance. He recently attended a rally held by VP nominee Paul Ryan, handing out flyers to make the case to tax and regulate pot like alcohol. Slaugh doesn’t see this as a left or right issue: “It’s fiscally prudent,” he says. “It would be taxed, regulated, monitored. It makes a lot of sense to Republicans.” 

The latest Republican pro-legalization volley comes from Tom Tancredo, the former congressman from suburban Denver who briefly ran for president in 2008. He's launched a radio ad describing marijuana prohibition as “failed government program” that “steers Colorado money to criminals in Mexico.” Comparing marijuana prohibition to the disastrous experiment of alcohol prohibition, Tancredo says, “Proponents of big government have duped us into supporting a similar prohibition of marijuana—even though it can be used safely and responsibly by adults.”

Of course, most of the right isn't convinced: the Romney campaign has announced its opposition to States' rights when it comes to marijuana, and most Republicans remain opposed to full legalization (although 67% of Republicans want to end the federal crackdown on MMJ.) Drug warriors are warning of a “constitutional showdown” if the legalization proposals pass. In a teleconference on Monday, Peter Bensinger, the former DEA administrator, tried to put the pressure on Attorney general Eric Holder to come out publicly against the proposals. "Federal law, the US Constitution and Supreme Court decisions say that this cannot be done because federal law preempts state law," he warned. And that's not all, apparently: “There is a bigger danger that touches every one of us,” Bensinger continued. “Legalizing marijuana threatens public health and safety. In states that have legalized medical marijuana, drug driving arrests, accidents, and drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed. Drug treatment admissions are up and the number of teens using this gateway drug is up dramatically." Bensinger was joined by perennial War on Drugs cheerleaders such as Bill Bennet and John Walters, former directors of the While House Office of National Drug Control Policy; Chief Richard Beary of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP); and Dr. Robert L. DuPont, founding director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Not everyone treated their intervention with the gravity they would have preferred: “The call today should be taken as seriously as an event by former coal industry CEOs opposing legislation curtailing greenhouse gas emissions,” retorted Mason Tvert, co-director of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the group behind Colorado's likely-to-pass Amendment 64. “They are stuck in a certain mindset and no level of evidence demonstrating the weakness of their position will change their views.”

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.