Reagan was wrong about the war on drugs–but his party can make things right

Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah)

Ronald Reagan was this country’s last great president. He pursued policies that enhanced the freedom of millions at home and abroad, while advancing activists for limited government within the Republican Party.

But the war on drugs tarnishes Reagan’s legacy. In addition to being a failure on a practical level, it has served mainly to diminish freedom. And here too, unfortunately, Reagan left a lasting imprint on the GOP.

Slowly but surely, that might be starting to change. Last week, the Republican-controlled House approved an amendment that would block the Drug Enforcement Agency from spending taxpayer dollars on dispensary raids in the 22 states where medical marijuana is legal. The DEA would be prohibited from otherwise interfering with the lawful medicinal use of pot.

While most of the votes came from Democrats, a record number of Republicans supported the amendment: 49 GOP lawmakers voted for it, up from 28 when it last came up for a vote in 2012. This Republican turnaround is the main reason the amendment succeeded this year. It had previously failed six times since 2003.

The amendment was introduced by California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. During the 1980s, Rohrabacher served in the Reagan White House. He was one of the president’s senior speechwriters. First elected in 1988, Rohrabacher had a 95 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union as of 2012.

On the same day, the GOP-controlled House voted 246 to 162 to stop the Department of Justice and the DEA from blocking states’ importation of hemp seeds and meddling in industrial hemp activities recently legalized in the farm bill. Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie was the lawmaker behind this measure; he was also a prime booster of legal industrial hemp.

Tea Party Republicans have been willing to work with Attorney General Eric Holder to revisit harsh sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders. In the Senate alone, the proponents of sentencing reform have included such conservatives as Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and Jeff Flake.

William F. Buckley, Jr., Milton Friedman and Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz all endorsed drug legalization or decriminalization years ago. So did Buckley’s flagship conservative magazine, National Review.

But getting Republicans who actually face the voters to challenge the status quo has been more difficult. The party’s prohibitionist instincts date back to Richard Nixon’s presidency. A critical mass of Republican politicians is beginning to see federalism and federal restraint as good for drug policy.

The transformation is not yet complete. Concerning the recent House medical marijuana vote, Reason magazine’s Jacob Sullum writes, “Republicans still overwhelmingly opposed the amendment, by a ratio of more than 3 to 1, while Democrats overwhelmingly supported it, by a ratio of 10 to 1.” This includes Republican congressmen from states like Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is legal.

A majority of rank-and-file Republicans continues to oppose the legalization of most drugs. According to a Pew poll, Republicans oppose legalizing marijuana by 59 percent to 39 percent, while independents support it by 58 percent to 38 percent and Democrats are in favor by 63 percent to 34 percent.

These numbers are a big reason many Republican politicians who appear to grasp the need to reform federal drug laws aren’t moving quickly enough toward legalization for most libertarians. The party as a whole still finds the concept too radical.

Note, however, that even the Pew poll shows a 15-point increase in Republican support for legal marijuana since 2010. And Republicans only slightly lag behind Democrats and independents on the question of whether small amounts of weed should land someone in jail. Only 29 percent say yes, 69 percent say no.

In time, the party of federalism will see the importance of letting states experiment with their own drug policies. The party of fiscal conservatism will see how much money we are spending on the war on drugs to little obvious effect. The party that quotes the Constitution will see how the drug war is infringing on the Bill of Rights, especially the Fourth Amendment.

The party that opposes Obamacare will hopefully stop standing in the way of medical marijuana and think twice about dealing with the medical problem of addiction by locking people in cages. The party that opposes President Obama will start speaking out against his DEA’s raids.

If any of those changes in the GOP actually happen, a Reagan mistake will be corrected—and his legacy will be a party more fully committed to individual freedom and the fight against big government.