Jacquelyn Martin / AP
Wednesday, April 18, 2018 | 2 a.m.
States that have passed laws legalizing recreational marijuana in recent years appear to have found some new, unexpected supporters: Republican politicians.
Since voters began to pass recreational marijuana measures in 2012, the pro-pot movement has seen swift support from many Democrats, with Republicans often pushing back against legalization. Those expressing concern or opposition have cited, among other things, the potential for pot to be a gateway drug, and they have regularly sided with law enforcement, which has established a unified front against recreational marijuana.
But a recent mix of public opinion, an influx in tax revenue and questions surrounding states' rights has in part led to a shift in rhetoric and legislative proposals.
President Trump last week spurned a threat by his Justice Department to crack down on recreational marijuana in states where it is legal, easing concerns about the possibility of raids and prosecution.
Trump's directive Friday came in response to concerns from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). Since January, Gardner has criticized an announcement by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions that he would rescind an Obama-era policy that directed federal prosecutors not to target marijuana businesses that operate legally under state law. Gardner had responded to the announcement by blocking Justice Department nominees.
Gardner had opposed recreational marijuana before Colorado passed its legalization measure in 2012, but has become one of the law's staunchest defenders. For him, the issue centers on states' rights. Shortly after Sessions' announcement, Gardner tweeted that it "trampled on the will of the voters in CO and other states."
To date, nine states -- Colorado, California and Nevada among them -- have legalized marijuana for recreational use, allowing people 21 and older to purchase and possess up to an ounce of marijuana.
Many states that have legalized recreational use have seen a boom in tax revenue. In 2016, Colorado generated about $250 million in tax revenue from recreational pot. Washington state raked in even more, about $256 million. Most of the money goes toward public school systems, according to state agencies that are tasked with overseeing legal marijuana.
The cost of legal marijuana varies based on taxes imposed in states and cities. In Denver, for example, marijuana costs an estimated $163 an ounce, according to MarijuanaRates.com, which tracks cannabis pricing. In Los Angeles, an ounce costs an average of about $250.
Neal Levine, chairman of the New Federalism Fund, a nonpartisan group that aims to maintain state and local authority over cannabis laws and has worked on policy with Republicans, said that over the years his organization has seen support grow in the GOP.
"Siding with state governments over federal regulation is an important principle of federalism and consistent with conservative values," Levine said. "The president himself has been a consistent proponent of states' rights and letting the federal government get out of the states' way on this issue. We expect our Republican champions on Capitol Hill will continue to lead on this issue and for those numbers to grow."
He cited the work of, among others, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), who is the lead sponsor of the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. The measure, which has more than a dozen Republican cosponsors, aims to prevent the federal government from criminally prosecuting individuals and businesses that are engaging in state-sanctioned activities specific to the possession, use, production and distribution of pot.
Other Republicans who have worked on marijuana legislation include Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia, who last year introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017. If passed, the bill would take marijuana off the federal controlled substances list -- joining other substances such as alcohol and tobacco.
In addition, several other Republicans have crafted legislation to protect medical marijuana laws, which have been passed in more than two dozen states.
Even so, these measures have stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress. Lawmakers have not made the issue a focal point, instead concentrating on such issues as tax reform.
Levine said it's only a matter of time before more Republican members of Congress change their tune and make the issue a legislative priority.
Last week, former GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner announced that he was joining the advisory board of Acreage Holdings, a company with cannabis operations in several states, and that his position on legal marijuana had changed based on public opinion. For years, Boehner had opposed legal marijuana, in part because he believed it was a gateway drug.
"As public opinion shifts, members' opinions on this are going to shift -- I'm a prime example," Boehner told Bloomberg. "Over these last 10 years, my attitude has changed pretty dramatically on this."
In October, a Gallup poll found 64% of respondents supported the legalization of recreational use of marijuana in the United States. For the first time, the poll found, a majority of Republicans surveyed -- 51% -- favored legalization. That number was up from 42% a year before. Meanwhile, 67% of independents supported legalization in the October poll, compared with 72% of Democrats. Other surveys have shown similar results.
Mason Tvert, vice president of communications for VS Strategies, a public affairs firm based in Denver that specializes in cannabis policy, said he expects the numbers will continue to trend upward.
"And that's going to force politicians -- especially Republicans who have been somewhat reluctant -- to continue to support the end of marijuana prohibition," Tvert said.
In recent years, some Republican governors have implemented legalization efforts at the behest of voters.
Two years ago, Nevadans overwhelmingly passed a measure allowing the sale and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for anyone older than 21. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval opposed the ballot measure but softened his language and worked to implement the law after voters passed the measure by a nearly 10-percentage-point margin.
And in January, Vermont Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill that legalized recreational marijuana. In Vermont, legalization has been debated for years, with most polls showing widespread support for it. Among voters there, 57% supported allowing adults to possess and grow limited amounts of marijuana, according to a survey conducted last year by Public Policy Polling. Thirty-nine percent opposed.
"I personally believe that what adults do behind closed doors and on private property is their choice," Scott said when he signed the legislation. "So long as it does not negatively impact the health and safety of others."