Once again, marijuana legalization is on the agenda at the Minnesota legislature—a proposal that would end the delaying of the inevitable, and unite Minnesota with fifteen other states in giving the drug full legal status. However, once again, Minnesota Republicans are promising to stand in the way—a feat they can accomplish thanks to their slim majority in the Senate. But even though Republican obstruction is hardly surprising on any legislative issue at any level of government, the politics of it still don’t make sense.
On a national level, the Republican Party is a mess. They’ve just wrapped up losing their fifth presidential election in eight contests, and if we lived in a country where we actually elected the popular vote winner, they would’ve lost two more. Also, the way that Republicans lost in 2020 is particularly troublesome for the future of the party, with formerly reliable red states like Arizona and Georgia turning blue, and other Republican strongholds like Texas and the Carolinas not trending too far behind. There might have been reason to believe that Republicans could regroup and regain ground in 2022 or 2024, but that seems more difficult to imagine following the events of January 6th, which exacerbated some already problematic divisions within the party. And when you’re in a party that represents a significant but—by definition—outnumbered minority of the American public, divisions are not something you can afford. Even though they represent the “conservative” wing of American politics, the Republican Party needs to find a way to change with the times if they want to remain relevant in future national elections. In that sense, support for the legalization of marijuana represents an opportunity, and they wouldn’t even need to abandon their principles to take advantage of it.
It’s hard to identify what Republican values even are following the Trumpist takeover of the party, but the GOP is supposed to be the party of limited government and individual liberty. So, why does the Republican Party continue to support policies that allow the government to incarcerate individuals for choices they make about what to put in their bodies? Why shouldn’t people be given the freedom to legally purchase and consume a substance that by almost all measures is less dangerous than alcohol and more healthy than McDonald’s? And as supporters of free markets and entrepreneurship, why wouldn’t Minnesota Republicans support the legalization of an industry that in five years could generate over a billion dollars in sales, 20,000 jobs, and 300 million dollars in tax revenue? The creation of a legal market would by definition reduce criminal activity—a perpetual concern of Republican politicians—and they could even paint the revenue as the product of a stoner sin tax that they could use to address other Republican priorities like paying down the deficit and giving tax breaks to millionaires.
Marijuana legalization would also give Republicans an opportunity to finally be on the right side of an issue in regards to racial justice. Racism is the main reason that marijuana was criminalized in the first place, and that racist legacy lives on today. Despite roughly equal usage rates between black and white Americans, black Americans are over three times more likely to be arrested on marijuana related charges, and in Minnesota, that disparity is almost double. Morality and justice aside, the issue presents a great political opportunity for Republicans to appeal to voters of color. Shifting demographics means that this country gets more black and brown every day, and if Republicans continue to insist on being the party of white supremacist nostalgia, they have no future in what is destined to be a majority-minority country in the next few decades.
To be sure, even if the Republican Party performed an about face and threw its full weight behind state and national legalization efforts in the name of individual liberty and racial justice, Republican candidates would still struggle to earn my vote. I may have an intellectual respect for libertarian and laissez faire attitudes, but I don’t subscribe to them. What is more, I don’t smoke weed. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used marijuana in the last half decade, and half of those times were random joints passed my way during live concerts at crowded music venues, and those don’ t even exist anymore (#COVID-19). But even though this issue does not affect me directly, it’s clearly an issue that is moving in one direction, and moving that way for good reason.
I guess what I want more than anything is just a competent second party. In general, while Democrats have been far more supportive of legalization efforts than Republicans, they have hardly been advocates. That’s because, politically speaking, there is no need to be. When the other party is always the party of “no”, there’s no need to be anything other than the party of “maybe”. When the other party is the party of dog whistles, conspiracy theories, and science denialism, there’s no reason to be anything other than the party of anti-racism, truth, and facts—all things that are good to be, but also things that represent a rather low bar for what we should expect from our political parties in the 21st century.
Aside from being a failing party itself, the other big failure of the Republican Party is its inability to challenge its rivals to be better. They’re always the party of regress rather than progress, always the party of yesterday rather than tomorrow, and for that reason, the Democratic Party needs to project nothing more than the most minimal competence to maintain its superior status in a two-party system where the other party is so backwards and unreasonable. The issue of marijuana legalization is an opportunity for Republicans to begin changing that narrative. But they won’t. And we’ll all be worse off for it.