CA congressman changes GOP pot game

CA congressman changes GOP pot game

RohrabacherFaced with a choice between traditional drug attitudes and federalist political principles, 49 Republican members of the House of Representatives recently voted in favor of the latter. And a California Congressman led the way.

In a result unthinkable just a few years ago, enough GOP representatives banded together to help pass a powerful statement of opposition to federal policy on medical marijuana.

The Respect State Medical Marijuana Laws Act was introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who represents California’s 48th district, in conservative Orange County. Quickly attracting bipartisan support, the bill promised two major changes. As Rohrabacher explained in a release, it would first “prevent the federal government from continuing to prosecute residents who are acting in accordance with their state’s marijuana laws.” But it would also “legalize marijuana at the federal level to the extent it is legal at the state level.”

Rohrabacher cited a recent Pew poll showing almost two-thirds of Americans oppose the federal prohibition of pot in states where it’s legal. The poll indicates broad skepticism toward current marijuana policy; almost three out of every four respondents polled agree that government efforts to enforce laws related to the drug cost more than they’re worth. Notably, self-described independents lead the dissatisfaction, with 78 percent taking that view.

Rohrabacher’s bill did not generate majority support among House Republicans, however, and House leadership was divided. Virginia Republican Frank Wolf invoked the judgment of the American Medical Association and the American Cancer Society in his nay vote, according to National Journal. Two Republican MDs, Reps. John Fleming of Louisiana and Andy Harris of Maryland, voiced opposition as well.

Meanwhile, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio abstained, while former Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and new Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California voted against the bill.

A disrupted consensus

Now, the bill heads to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. Senate Republicans, however, face a similar crossroads as their GOP associates in the House. Public opinion is shifting sharply against pot prohibition, for a complex set of reasons. As the Los Angeles Times reports, at least some influential pro-marijuana groups are now prepared to throw financial and political support behind Republican candidates.

While rising generations are confounding expectations at the state level, however, it’s at the national level where precipitous change in marijuana policy is most likely to occur. Rohrabacher has attempted to reform pot laws before; since 2003, similar measures to his latest effort have failed six times.

His victory in the House changes the political calculus in the Senate, where leading Republicans must decide whether to hand an election-year victory to Democrats. If majority Senate Democrats are allowed to pass Rohrabacher’s bill with minimal GOP support, they can paper over their own sharp divides on marijuana policy.

If, however, a majority of Republican Senators agrees to throw their support behind Rohrabacher’s bill, they gain a potentially significant new talking point. At a time when the national GOP is actively searching for wedge issues that demonstrate an openness to new ideas and bold reforms, moving the needle even moderately on marijuana policy is a relatively low-risk, high-benefit way to encourage a second look from undecided voters.

Such a move would come with a cost. Speaking for many East Coast Republicans, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida recently insisted there is no responsible way to smoke recreational marijuana. For leading GOP figures who share the prohibitionist view, any major movement by Republicans toward a more lenient position would be an embarrassment at best.

Tags assigned to this article:
Dana RohrabachermarijuanaIgor BirmanJames Poulos

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