Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Right & the Drug War

By Anthony Gregory

Detail from a poster for Reefer Madness

Pat Robertson began publicly criticizing the drug war in December 2010, and he has become more vocal since. Unlike the vague critiques often heard from prominent figures—even Barack Obama has called the drug war a failure—Robertson’s insights have been precise, and consistent, and deeply-rooted. “We here in America make up 5 percent of the world’s population, but we make up 25 percent of jailed prisoners,” he noted in March, appearing genuinely moved by the issue. “I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat … alcohol,” he told the New York Times. Beyond the practical argument, Robertson sees the moral dimension: “I believe in working with the hearts of people, and not locking them up.”

In light of his key role in the religious right, Robertson’s comments take on special significance. The man speaks to a particular strain of social conservatives, not straying from their rhetorical comfort zone even as he champions drug legalization for principled reasons. He even blames the left for a burgeoning police state: “Every time the liberals pass a bill—I don’t care what it involves—they stick criminal sanctions on it.”

Should “theocons” adopt a more tolerant view on drugs, it would shake the entire right-wing on the issue. They would be the last prominent faction to demonstrate skepticism. The American right has long had its share of drug-war critics. William F. Buckley articulately defended legalization on a half-hour PBS special in 1996. George Will has often explained the unintended consequences of prohibition, although he still falls short of calling for decriminalization. Barry Goldwater expressed skepticism toward the criminal-justice approach.

Neocons have either not cared much about drugs and other domestic matters or have sometimes embraced drug decriminalization as a nod to their social liberal side. Fusionist and libertarian-leaning conservatives have tended toward decriminalization. Right-wing talk radio, the information source for millions, has also featured many voices skeptical of drug laws, from the sensationalist Michael Savage to Jeffersonians like Mike Church. The common-sense center-right has often decried the futility of marijuana prohibition in particular.

Missing in the conservative approach to the issue has been an understanding of the grave threats prohibition poses to the social institutions that cultural conservatives, including the Christian right, hold dear. If Robertson foreshadows a coming shift in the Silent Majority’s sentiments, this void will finally be filled. Despite the prominent critics among their ranks, everyday conservatives have consistently revealed themselves in polls as more hostile to decriminalization than liberals and moderates. A socially conservative turnaround on the issue would change everything. Just as many moralists who championed temperance turned against alcohol prohibition after seeing the social destruction it unleashed in the 1920s, today’s social conservatives could play a defining role in ending drug prohibition.

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