Pot Wars: A Bipartisan Failure

11/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As marijuana legalization activists gather this weekend in San Francisco, we will be speaking together as Republican parents sounding our support for ending federal marijuana prohibition. Inevitably, we'll be asked the following: "If you feel so passionately about legalization, why don't you switch parties?" Based solely on American drug policy, however, the question begs a rather simple response. Marijuana prohibition is the result of nothing less than a staunch bipartisan commitment.

While leaders from both major political parties whisper privately about the insanity of the drug war, they decline to take a rational public position in support of legalization or decriminalization. Instead, they continue to cater to an ill-conceived misunderstanding of what their respective constituencies believe our marijuana policies should be.

Democrats, ever fearful of appearing soft on crime, calculate that they will have nothing to gain by supporting legalization. Instead, they throw scraps of sentencing reform out in an effort to silent those most passionately calling for change. Republicans, meanwhile, fear angering a socially conservative base of voters all too eager to forget its beer-bonging college days.

While national Democrats, including Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, made enforcement of marijuana prohibition a lower priority under their respective administrations than George W. Bush, they together have thus far failed to provoke lasting policy changes different than those of the Republican who served between them.

And while Obama's legacy is still years from being fully cultivated, his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has proclaimed a steadfast commitment to continuing our nation's failed policies of enforcing strict prohibition as a way of deterring international drug cartels from entering the United States.

While Obama gave hope to legalization advocates during his 2004 Senate campaign, suggesting he might support legalization, hopes were dashed after he took his presidential oath. At a March town hall meeting, he mocked the issue entirely. During the event, where participants submitted questions online, Obama quipped, "There was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation. And I don't know what this says about the online audience." When the audience erupted in laughter, Obama responded, "The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy."

But this is not the America of 20 years ago. With two active military actions abroad, an ever-looming threat of terrorism and arms development by enemy states, a federal deficit threatening the livelihood of workers not yet born, and prisons bursting at the seams, Americans are increasingly resistant to government serving as an arbiter of good behavior, or worse yet, parents of our children.

As detailed Wednesday by the Denver Post's David Harsanyi, a new Gallup poll shows that "57 percent of Americans say the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals. Forty-five percent say there is too much government regulation, and only 27 percent say the amount of regulation is about right."

America should have learned its lesson decades ago when the nation's mothers successfully lobbied to end alcohol prohibition. A win against a substance that people cultivated in their own bathtubs could not be won. Today, the war against a plant grown in backyards and basements can only be lost.

Leading economists and medical professionals get it. In 2005, hundreds of economists signed on to a letter to Congress featuring the research of Harvard Professor Jeffrey Miron, and which outlined frightening budgetary implications of marijuana prohibition. According to Miron, legalization would free up $8 billion now spent on law enforcement and judicial costs; in addition, between $2.4 billion and $6.2 billion could be generated every year in new tax revenue. If the numbers seem overly dramatic, consider this: we spend up to $30,000 a year to incarcerate a non-violent marijuana offender, triple the amount we devote to the average public school student.

While timid politicos see pot as politically lethal, a growing number of voters disagree. A CBS/New York Times poll taken this year shows that 41 percent support outright legalization, up from what the news organizations found in 1979, when just 27 percent supported such a move. In addition, age trends suggest support will continue to grow; 49 percent of voters under 45 support legalization, and a slim majority under 35 support it.

In our home state of Colorado, support clearly crosses partisan boundaries. In 2006, 41 percent of voters favored an underfunded statewide initiative to allow for small amounts of adult marijuana possession. The effort garnered more support than that year's Republican gubernatorial candidate, who finished election night at just 40 percent, and in spite of the fact that Republicans narrowly outnumbered Democrats statewide.

We're not alone in our views. A growing number of western Republicans agree with us. As retired Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo told us Wednesday, "It is not the legitimate business of the federal government to tell states they can or cannot end the prohibition on possession or use of a drug that is less harmful than alcohol."

Prominent Republicans joining Tancredo include U.S. Rep. Raul Paul of Texas, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, and his state's former GOP Chair John Dendahl.

Dendahl was previously a star athlete who competed for the U.S. Ski Team. "The unintended bad consequences of the so-called War on Drugs are orders of magnitude worse than anything connected with Prohibition 80-90 years ago," he said. "We need a new game plan."

The drug war is failing America's families, and particularly our children. It is immoral to bankrupt our children's futures to the tune of billions of dollars each year to promote failed policies that do little -- or nothing -- to keep pot out of their hands.

Various surveys across the nation find high school students conceding marijuana use more recently, or more frequently, than alcohol -- an amazing admission given that sanctions for marijuana use extend far beyond those for alcohol. Under federal law, pot use can result in automatic denial of all federal financial aid and scholarships. But doctors might find encouragement in this trend, as a growing arsenal of peer-reviewed scientific research concludes that alcohol is more detrimental to juvenile brain development than marijuana.

Of course, marijuana is not completely harmless. It's increasingly clear, however, that its periodic use is far less likely to kill you than double cheeseburgers, martinis on an empty stomach at happy hour or cigarettes. At what point do we deny faceless bureaucrats access to our personal, albeit sometimes imperfect, decisions?

We stand at a crossroads today, where we can either stubbornly perpetuate a failed drug war in the hope of proving history wrong, or we can demand a new approach. As parents, we know our children deserve better than a government incapable of admitting its failures, especially given the magnitude of prohibition's ill consequences.

When it comes to ending this madness, laying blame on some lazy stereotype of uptight conservatives is only a distraction. It took two parties to get us into this mess. It will take both to get us out.

Jessica Peck Corry ( is a public policy analyst with the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo., and Robert J. Corry, Jr. ( is a Denver-based attorney specializing in civil rights and criminal defense.