Conservatives joining the push to legalize marijuana

Votes upcoming in Colo., Oregon, Washington state

Former US representative Tom Tancredo (right) backs a measure that would legalize marijuana in Colorado.
Ed Andrieski/Associated Press
Former US representative Tom Tancredo (right) backs a measure that would legalize marijuana in Colorado.

DENVER — It’s not all hippies backing November’s marijuana legalization votes in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.

Appealing to Western individualism and a mistrust of federal government, activists have lined up some prominent conservatives, including onetime presidential hopefuls Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson, a Republican-turned-Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico governor.

‘‘This is truly a nonpartisan issue,’’ said Mark Slaugh, a volunteer for the Colorado initiative who is based in Colorado Springs, which has more Republicans than anywhere else in the state.


‘‘States’ rights! States’ rights!’’ Slaugh cried as he handed out fliers about the state’s marijuana measure outside a rally last month by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Quite a few passersby took the flier.

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‘‘It’s fiscally prudent. It would be taxed, regulated, monitored. It makes a lot of sense to Republicans,’’ he said.

Still, most Republicans oppose legalization. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney vows to enforce federal law. When Ryan told a Colorado Springs TV station in September that medical marijuana legalization was ‘‘up to Coloradans to decide,’’ his campaign backtracked and said he agreed with Romney.

When activists make their appeal, it goes like this: States should dictate drug law. Decades of prohibition have failed where personal responsibility and old-fashioned parenting will succeed. Politicians back East have no business dictating what the states do.

‘‘What is the law against marijuana if it isn’t the Nanny State telling you what you can do and what you can’t do to your body and with your body?’’ asked Tancredo, a former Republican congressman from suburban Denver who briefly ran for president in 2008 and endorsed the measure on the steps of the state capitol. He compared federal law to New York City’s ban on sugary sodas.


Tancredo launched a radio ad this week in which he compares marijuana prohibition to alcohol prohibition as a ‘‘failed government program’’ that, in this case, ‘‘steers Colorado money to criminals in Mexico.’’

‘‘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,’’ Tancredo said.

Supporters of legalization have lined up other surprising allies this year, even as many Democrats oppose the measures. Conservative stalwart Pat Robertson, for example, said marijuana should be legal.

In Washington state, Republican US Senate hopeful Michael Baumgartner is running a longshot bid to unseat Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, who opposes legalization.

‘‘It’s taking a different approach to a very expensive drug war, and potentially a better approach,’’ he said.


In Oregon, at least one Republican state Senate candidate backs legalization. Cliff Hutchison reasoned that legalizing the drug would ‘‘cut wasteful government spending on corrections and reduce drug gang violence.’’

Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, is fiscally conservative but supports such liberal causes as legalizing marijuana, immigration reform, and abortion rights. He has said that if elected he would pardon all nonviolent prisoners convicted of marijuana-related offenses in federal court.

Pro-legalization conservatives have counterparts on the other side — Democrats who say marijuana shouldn’t be legal without a doctor’s recommendation. Democratic governors in Colorado and Washington oppose legalization. Oregon’s Democratic governor has not taken a stand.

President Obama’s administration has shut down medical marijuana dispensaries in California and Colorado.

GOP state Senator Steve King of Colorado is a critic of the state’s medical marijuana law. Conservatives abhor government, but they also fear legalization would increase children’s drug use. ‘‘It’s pretty easy to come in and say, ‘Let’s decrease government.’ And I’m all for that. This just isn’t the place to start,’’ King said. ‘‘We have a next generation to protect.’’