When it comes to politics, the United States is anything but united.
A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center indicated that American partisanship was at its most divisive point in more than two decades. And that was before the country elected a president whose campaign strategy included promising to jail his political rivals and delegitimizing the free press and before Republican leaders repeatedly declined to investigate startling evidence of a connection between a sitting president and a foreign government.
For the first time since the Pew Research Center began tracking this survey data in 1992, a majority of both Republicans and Democrats viewed the opposing party “very unfavorably.” By some deeper analyses, the country may be more divided than any time since the Civil War.
Yet, comparatively speaking, liberals and conservatives have found common ground in one of the most controversial subjects of American politics: Marijuana.
Many high-ranking Republicans, including members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, maintain a prohibitionist stance based on debunked theories about marijuana being a gateway drug that’s just as dangerous as heroin. However, more and more conservatives are beginning to see through the misinformation campaign that has kept cannabis prohibition in place for nearly a century.
Typically considered a left-wing cause — and still supported by far more Democrats than Republicans — marijuana legalization is gaining momentum even among staunch conservatives in traditionally red states, thanks in part to groups like Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), a 501(c)3 nonprofit founded in Texas in 2012 by Ann Lee and her late husband, Bob Lee.
Through an interview with RAMP communications director Hunter White, Marijuana Venture takes a deeper look at the organization’s mission and how it’s guiding conservatives toward the light.
Marijuana Venture: What is the mission of RAMP?
Hunter White: Our overall mission is to see an end to marijuana prohibition as a whole. That’s a pretty broad mission, but we tackle prohibition in all its forms, from the criminal justice issues related to decriminalization, to medical rights, patient rights, individual liberties. We fight for the economic benefit of recreational marijuana and industrial hemp, as well.
The way we do that is we really try to get people who are involved in state and local Republican politics to get marijuana reform on state Republican party platforms.
MV: What are the central reasons RAMP opposes marijuana prohibition?
White: Really, marijuana reform is something that should resonate with Republicans.
From an economic side, fiscal conservatives like the issue because it saves taxpayer money. We’re not throwing people in jail and having to pay for them to be there. We’re not having to pay police and these special agencies more to enforce these laws.
It appeals to the liberty-minded Republicans and more Libertarian-leaning Republicans, because why can the government tell me what I can and can’t do, or what I can put in my body?
Another thing we have found as a good tenet for breaking into Republican circles is making a pro-life argument for marijuana reform — basically trying to show that a lot of people in the pro-life movement have a problem where they only care about the quality of life until the child is born.
They’ll do everything they can to protect this child’s life, and the child is born with intractable epilepsy and has a horrible quality of life. If marijuana can treat that and give them back their life, how can you say you’re pro-life, but deny this medicine to this child? Or deny this medicine to somebody with multiple sclerosis.
We’ve actually found that to be effective in the southern states. You slap a pro-life issue onto it and Republicans start to listen. It’s amazing.
MV: In the current political climate, Republicans and Democrats seem to disagree on everything. Yet, in a lot of ways, marijuana legalization should be a truly bipartisan issue. Do you agree with this? And do you think cannabis could be a subject that helps heal the massive political divide that we see right now?
White: I absolutely agree that it’s a bipartisan issue. This is something Democrats and Republicans can agree on.
I saw that happen in Texas just earlier this month. We had decriminalization and medical bills with very broad bipartisan support with Democrats, moderate Republicans and extreme conservatives all jumping aboard medical marijuana and supporting decriminalization. At least for Texas, it was a very nice change of pace from our normal, horrific party battles that go on.
I know that other chapters, especially our Virginia chapter, have seen that a lot. It is an issue that can bring us together. Even on the federal level, while there isn’t the critical mass to get reform done, there is strong bipartisan support.
Unfortunately, in Texas and states like Indiana and North Carolina, there are very entrenched conservatives who just will not budge on this issue for either no good reason or for some pretty unfortunate reasons. Depending on how your state is laid out, they can stop reform. We saw that here in Texas and we’ve seen it in other states as well.
MV: A lot of people we’ve talked with in Texas almost jokingly say it’s going to be the last state in the country to embrace reform. Do you feel like you’re seeing some traction and movement in a positive direction?
White: Unfortunately, this is a bad time to ask because our session is about to wrap up and all of our bills died. But we did see an amazing amount of support in the Republican-controlled House. We saw some positive developments from Governor Greg Abbott about his pretty hardline stance. It didn’t go far enough, but any step is good.
We’ve definitely seen reform and I doubt we’ll be the last (state to legalize cannabis). I truly think, based on the number of lawmakers I’ve spoken with, that they’ll see the amount of money California gets and after two or three years of that, they will not turn their backs. That’s one of the reasons California was a big deal for our state, because that’s a massive domino. That really pushes the needle for us.
On the Right side of legalization
While many of the highest-profile Republicans in the country, including the president and members of his cabinet, are not friendly to the legal cannabis business, not every member of the party ascribes to the same rigid ideology on the matter. Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition does not endorse candidates, but communications director Hunter White pointed out four Republicans whose views align with the pro-cannabis nonprofit.
Jason Issac was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2010 as a conservative Republican. He recently co-sponsored bills legalizing medical marijuana and decriminalizing possession of small quantities on the plant.
David Simpson is a former Tea Party-supported member of the Texas House whose support of marijuana legalization stems from his belief that God does not make mistakes and the government should not outlaw plants designed by the Creator.
Earlier this year, freshman legislator Thomas Garrett introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives the “Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act.” If passed, the law, which was originally introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2015, would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. According to Garrett’s website, it is a criminal justice and states’ rights issue for him.
Current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie opposes legalization, but the man seeking to replace him does not share the same myopic view. Joe Rullo has said the success in other states convinced him New Jersey could also use the new revenue stream and save money on drug-related police enforcement.
MV: What does RAMP see as the biggest impediment to legalization?
White: Some of it has to do with the political structure of states. In some states, it’s just easier to get reform done; they have better access to the ballot, longer legislative cycles and usually governors that wield much more power than ours do.
As far as the federal level goes, half of it is just the lumbering mechanism that is Congress. It’s hard to get that many people to agree on anything, especially when partisanship is so high. Even when there is bipartisan support, some yahoo will throw something onto a bill or somebody in an important committee position can just kill a bill. There’s no way around it.
Of course, there’s also the rhetoric that comes from certain branches of government — mainly the executive at this point. When the attorney general speaks about an issue, people listen, and when the attorney general is saying very bad things about your issue, it doesn’t matter that you may have the support for it. People tend to be either scared off or give it a second thought about whether it’s right.
MV: What is RAMP’s stance on President Trump? While it remains up in the air what direction he’ll push marijuana laws (or at this point, how long he’ll even stay in office), several of his appointments, including Jeff Sessions as attorney general, seem to indicate a re-escalation of the failed War on Drugs.
White: As far as Mr. Trump is concerned, our organization was happy to hear that he had a position of non-interference with medical marijuana. It’s not as good as the good old days when he said, ‘legalize everything,’ but that is a pretty status quo policy and at the moment, that seems about the best we can ask for.
Some of his comments about recreational marijuana have been disappointing, but he doesn’t seem to want to act on any of that. Considering how popular that is and his current position, it seems very unlikely that would be something he’d want to touch, because he’s already under fire and that would put him a little bit more under fire.
We were very happy to see that Mr. Trump retracted the nomination of Tom Marino to be drug czar, and then in his dream budget he sent to Congress, he slashed the funding for the department. That was a positive development. I hope it was for the right reason in that it was a hindrance to reform, rather than just a drastic budget-slashing maneuver.
From what I understand, Marino had some rather large conflicts of interest, which would have made him a really unsuitable person for that position.
As far as how we combat Jeff Sessions wanting to reignite the Drug War, we’re trying to get the states to change their laws at such a rate that the federal government won’t have the time or the resources to claw back all the reform that’s been made.
MV: What are the best ways for people to support RAMP and its mission?
White: As far as supporting RAMP, that would be mainly donations or becoming members. But as far as the mission, honestly, it’s doing the same thing we train and coordinate our activists to do, which is to get involved in your county Republican party. It’s different for every state, but get involved in the process of modifying your party’s state platform. Get involved in that process. Get involved in different Republican organizations that fit your demographic or specific ideology and bring up the issue. Make the argument that makes sense to them. And basically, try to lift the stigma that there aren’t any Republicans who support this issue.
Contact your state legislators or even your federal legislators. People don’t realize it’s fairly easy to make your voice be heard. It’s a phone call, it’s an email — everybody’s got an extra five minutes. You’ve got nothing to lose.