Republicans for Cannabis Reform

By Dan Mitchell
Sep 16, 2020

The third annual National Cannabis Policy Summit, held online last week, is billed as a big mattress for strange bedfellows. In her introductory remarks, Caroline Phillips, founder of the National Cannabis Festival, which produces the summit, described it as an effort to “bring together unlikely allies to share ideas around cannabis policy reform.”

Along with the usual suspects from organizations like NORML and the National Cannabis Industry Association, the summit featured a guy from the Charles Koch Institute, the editor of libertarian Reason magazine, a couple of Republican lawmakers, and Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, who is one of the left’s favorite targets thanks to his radical, right-wing views on taxes and regulations. (Basically, he’s against ‘em all).

It was too much for some cannabis proponents. Adam Mintz, an Oakland-based cannabis executive and activist asked on the Summit’s Facebook page. “Whose bright idea was it to put Grover Norquist on a panel related to anything, ever?!” Mintz noted that Norquist is involved with the National Rifle Association and the hard-right American Conservative Union, and that he had been “a huge supporter of South African Apatheid throughout the ‘80s.” (True.) “Really classin’ up the joint,” Mintz concluded.

The reply from the summit’s page sounded like it came from an editor of an op-ed section or magazine under fire for publishing a loony screed: “We welcome voices on cannabis from both sides of the aisle.” The summit encouraged Mintz to ask Norquist these questions himself during the Q&A portion of the panel talk. That didn’t happen.  

Mintz’s questions, if overheated, were certainly valid. As was the summit’s big tent position on cannabis reform.  While the meaning of “conservative” has changed drastically over the past few years, Norquist has long been a  vocal proponent of legalization.


The conservative case

Norquist joined a panel on “The Conservative Case for Cannabis and Criminal Justice Reform.” Reason Editor-in-chief Katherine Mangu-Ward moderated the talk, which also included Vikram Reddy, a senior fellow on criminal justice reform for the Koch Institute, and Lou Correa, a cannabis-friendly Democratic congressman from Orange County, California. Correa spent much of his time pooh-poohing the notions of “liberal” and “conservative,” and extolling “common-sense” approaches to cannabis policy.

The panelists agreed that a big reason for the movement toward legalization and decriminalization is that conservatives have been coming around. That’s true. Most of the efforts to remove cannabis from state and federal criminal codes have been bipartisan to at least some degree. But the panel either ignored or brushed over the fact that Republicans have been disproportionately responsible for prohibition and its many often-racist misuses over the decades. Notably, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is arguably the chief obstacle to federal reform.

Still, the first part of the panel talk sounded like any other gathering of cannabis reformers and activists. They all want pot legalized at the federal level. The problem “back in the ‘90s,” Norquist said, was that conservative lawmakers and conservatives in general “kept conflating drugs and crime.” Now, they’re learning that decoupling those two things leads to more resources for cops and less-crowded jails. Reddy noted that  “there are precedents for this in conservative history,” citing William F. Buckley, the late editor and publisher of the National Review who for decades stood almost alone among conservatives in calling for legalization.

The panelists talked about the potential benefits of cannabis for getting people off opioid drugs, and about the lack of harms that have resulted from legalization.

How Big a Tent?

In terms of the common goal of getting weed legalized, liberals and conservatives can find common cause. After that, it gets sticky. While the panel sounded like most people in the weed business, including most activists, as they complained about overtaxation and overregulation, their proposed solutions were very different.

Norquist and Reddy are both self-described “federalists,” meaning they think most legislation and regulation should be enacted by states rather than by the federal government. But even then, Norquist, in particular, is opposed to the government stepping in at all. There should be, he said, “a federal non-rule.” That is, just legalize, but don’t tax or regulate. “We don’t need to pass legislation,” he said, “we need to repeal legislation.”

Many pot advocates would agree with him on that point. But maybe not so much on his opinion that the states should do the same. Norquist approved of an unsuccessful legalization effort in North  Dakota to legalize weed, because legalizing was all it would have done, free of “all these complicated things where they decide how much to tax it and who’s gonna get the goodies… and all the silly regulations,” he said. The effort failed.

“Simply say it’s not illegal anymore — done,” he said. “They should treat it like it was any other product, not like it was alcohol,” he said.

This might work in Norquist’s mind, but as anybody who’s ever worked in cannabis (or alcohol) policy will tell you, it doesn’t work in the real world. Pot, alcohol, and tobacco all create public  problems of one kind or another: They have public-health implications. They need to be tested (this is especially true with pot). Most people want them restricted to adult-use only. They all must be regulated differently from candy bars and shampoo. To finance such regulation, tax revenues are needed.

But for Norquist, all those taxes and regulations exist just “so the state can make a buncha money.”