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Marijuana Legalization
Over the last month, three Republican governors have signaled their opposition to measures that would expand access to recreational marijuana. Steve Helber/AP

Republicans’ War Against Pot Is Back On

Marijuana advocates have seen years of progress on legalization. But three of the most prominent Republicans in the country are signaling the fight’s not done.

Years of progress in the push for legal marijuana is hitting a sudden wall of opposition, thanks to a trio of potential future Republican presidential candidates.

Over the last month, three Republican governors — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders — have signaled their opposition to measures that would expand access to recreational marijuana in their states. In each case, they spoke about their opposition as a last line of defense against the widespread use of a drug they said would endanger adults and children or become an unwarranted public nuisance.

The actions of the trio, each viewed as a potential presidential hopeful in 2028, show that even as more and more voters back broadening access to marijuana, key GOP leaders are betting that opposing it could help them with the kind of conservative voters who play a critical role in the party’s presidential contests. They suggest the drug, even if it no longer sits in the center of the culture wars, might yet struggle to gain full acceptance among Americans despite its recent progress.

“I think there is a conservative backlash, led by the Huckabees and Youngkins of the world, drawing a line in the sand,” said Kevin Sabet, CEO of the anti-pot group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “They don’t see how it’s helpful. They’re not going to embrace it anytime soon.”

Marijuana proponents dispute the notion of a brewing backlash, noting both the proliferation of measures in recent decades to expand access to marijuana and public opinion polls that show growing support for legalization, even among Republican voters.

Other GOP leaders have indicated a greater openness to legalizing marijuana. Last year, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said he would be open to signing legalization legislation if certain conditions were met. Some politically conservative states, like Missouri, have also legalized the product.

At least 24 states have moved to allow at least a small amount of marijuana use since Colorado first legalized recreational cannabis a decade ago, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Public opinion has changed just as fast: A 2023 Gallup survey found that support for legalization has increased 58 percentage points since 1969, from 12% to 70%, including a 19-point rise since 2014.

Fifty-five percent of GOP voters in the 2023 poll also said they supported marijuana legalization.

The three governors might be trying to set themselves up for a future White House bid, advocates say, but their opposition is less of a backlash than the last spasms of a movement on its way to total defeat.

“These are the elements who oppose prohibition ending, who are scrambling and trying to continue the status quo with every ounce of opposition they have left,” said Kevin Caldwell, southeast legislative manager of the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-marijuana advocacy group.

Last month, Youngkin vetoed a bill approved by the Virginia Legislature that would have created a retail market for marijuana in the state, saying expanding access to the drug “endangers Virginians’ health and safety.” It was a move the governor’s administration had signaled since last year, even though the drug has technically been legal in the state since 2021.

Sanders, for her part, said in 2022 that she would oppose a proposed constitutional amendment in the state that would allow for recreational marijuana use. In March, a new group in Arkansas led by a top Sanders adviser formed to oppose the amendment (along with other proposed amendments dealing with abortion rights and education).

Also in March, DeSantis announced his opposition to a ballot measure in Florida that would amend the state constitution to allow for recreational marijuana use, saying he worried that the amendment wouldn’t allow the government to discourage the drug’s use around schools or to stop its distinctive smell from overwhelming cities. (In a twist from Sanders, however, some of the Florida governor’s top allies in the state, including the lobbyist Nick Iarossi, lobby for a marijuana company, pushing voters to support the measure.)

“Your life will be impacted by this,” DeSantis said Wednesday, according to Politico. “It will change the quality of life in our communities. You will smell it when you’re walking down a lot of these streets.”

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In each case, the governors didn’t condemn marijuana as a moral threat, as politicians and other marijuana critics once did decades ago. They also haven’t moved broadly to reduce access to marijuana, though Sanders last year signed a law banning some marijuana-adjacent cannabis products.

But their opposition has nonetheless teased the possibility, say GOP political strategists, that Republican elected officials might offer stiffer-than-expected resistance to expanding marijuana access, despite its rise in popularity. Conservative leaders don’t need to stand for abolishing it, they say, just reducing its impact on society at large.

“There’s a comfort level among conservatives that, ‘Hey, medical marijuana makes sense,’ and I think there’s a large segment of people who say, ‘Hey, do what you want to do in your home, as long as you’re not hurting other people,’” said Craig Robinson, a veteran GOP strategist based in Iowa. “But they can also say they think there are societal damages that do happen if it’s abused.”

Opposition to legalized marijuana runs highest among conservative Republicans, according to polls. A 2022 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 37% of conservative Republicans wanted the drug legal for medical and recreational use, eight points lower than the 45% of Republicans overall who said they were OK with both uses of the product.

President Joe Biden, for his part, has asked his administration and the attorney general to review how marijuana is classified by the federal government, potentially removing it from a list of closely controlled substances like heroin.

Donald Trump’s position on marijuana has been murkier, even to advocates on both sides who closely watch the issue.

“I think he’s of two minds,” Sabet said. “I hear a different rumor every month about what his position is going to be on this, so I don’t know what to believe myself.”

Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS.