The Conservative Schism on Legalizing Pot

Virginia has grown less ideologically conservative in recent years, if election results are anything to go by. But it still exhibits the temperamental conservatism summarized by the traditionalist's credo: When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. That might partly account for the state's hidebound policies on pot.

More residents these days think the state's approach to marijuana needs changing, however. Eighty percent of Virginians in a recent survey favor civil fines rather than criminal conviction for minor possession offenses, and more than three out of five Virginians support the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

More ideological conservatives are modulating their views on pot as well. The commonwealth's crime commission will study decriminalization of pot this year, thanks to a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, a Republican who recently provoked liberal wrath with his proposal on felon voting rights, which progressives viewed as a step backward. Such a Nixon-goes-to-China move might have provided the catalyst without which Virginia would have remained stuck in Prohibition mode for the foreseeable future.

Or not. Both Democratic candidates for governor, Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello, favor decriminalizing marijuana. Northam, a pediatric neurologist who knows better than most the damage that drugs can do to the adolescent brain, was the first to announce his position publicly.

But while a majority of younger Republicans favor legalization, the GOP candidates aren't there yet. Front-runner Ed Gillespie opposes decriminalization and supports merely "exploring reforms to make sure that penalties align appropriately to the offense committed." N.b.: Exploring. Wouldn't want to actually endorse such a crazy idea, now would we.

Corey Stewart and Frank Wagner have nothing to say on the subject. And the one exception on the right has dropped out of the race: Denver Riggleman, a former Air Force intelligence officer and current boutique distiller. He told The Virginian-Pilot the Republican Party should get with the times: "There's gotta be some common sense about marijuana at some point."

Riggleman also said the GOP needs to conform its position on marijuana to its broader philosophical preference for limited government. The comment speaks to a Republican fissure on the issue between law-and-order conservatives and small-government conservatives.

The small-government types have the better argument. Pot is certainly far from harmless. Yet every argument for the prohibition of marijuana applies equally well to the prohibition of alcohol. Indeed, if you consider the social harm inflicted by the two drugs, current policy has it precisely backward: Alcohol should be illegal and pot should be legal.

The number of deaths caused by marijuana is, if not zero, then too small to be measured. The Drug Enforcement Administration concedes that "no death from overdose of marijuana" has ever been reported, and even the prohibitionist Family Council could find fewer than 300 deaths to which marijuana allegedly "contributed"—over an eight-year period. More people than that die being struck by lightning.

Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control, "excessive alcohol use is a leading cause of preventable death. This dangerous behavior accounted for approximately 88,000 deaths per year from 2006–2010, and accounted for 1 in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20–64 years."

Yet we hear no conservative demands for the return of alcohol Prohibition. Nor have conservatives stormed the barricades to demand tighter gun control, despite the fact that several hundred children a year die from gunshots, along with about 30,000 other people.

It is simply not tenable for conservatives to argue that marijuana, which directly kills nobody, should be verboten but booze and guns should not.

Philosophically, the war on marijuana belongs to those who favor the Nanny State. In that regard, the liberal push for legalization also looks incongruous, given widespread progressive support for tobacco restrictions, the individual insurance mandate, soda taxes, and similar infringements on personal autonomy.

Liberals should be asking themselves whether their moral principles concerning marijuana shouldn't also apply in other instances. Conservatives should be asking themselves whether their principles concerning alcohol and guns shouldn't also apply to marijuana. Consistency suggests that, for both sides, it's necessary to change.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.