Up in Smoke?

The GOP's views on marijuana are showing signs of a shift

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Ken Cuccinelli had a surprise in store when he stepped to a podium at the University of Virginia on Feb. 6. The commonwealth's conservative attorney general stunned the auditorium crammed with liberal college kids by citing the "fascinating experiment" under way in Colorado and Washington, states where voters legalized marijuana in landmark referendums last fall. "I'm not at all unhappy that they're doing it," he said, noting that his views on drug enforcement are "evolving."

It's a perspective often voiced in late-night dorm-room discussions but rarely uttered by an ascendant Republican running for governor. Yet as the push to legalize pot migrates from the margins to the mainstream, it is mellowing some Republicans in the process. "If it was a secret ballot, the majority of Republicans would have voted to legalize marijuana a long time ago," says GOP Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California, who has long opposed the "monstrous" war on drugs. For years, conservatives' convictions have been trumped by the fear of being painted as soft on crime, Rohrabacher says, but now, "when the Republicans start wetting their finger and sticking it in the air, they've got to begin to realize that the wind is blowing in the opposite direction."

The percentage of Americans who favor scrapping the 75-year-old federal prohibition on weed has doubled during the past decade to about 50% and is expected to keep climbing. While federal law is unlikely to change anytime soon, Rohrabacher says conservative ideology should spur the party to revisit its policies.

The party's libertarian wing has long opposed government infringement on personal choice. Fiscal hawks can point to the billions of dollars in taxes and fees that legalizing weed might yield for recession-hobbled budgets. Then there's the budding alliance between stoners and conservatives--like Cuccinelli, former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul--who don't advocate legalization but say states should have the right to make that choice. GOP Congressman Mike Coffman opposed the legalization referendum in his home state of Colorado, then signed on to a bill warning the feds not to meddle with the result. According to a recent CBS News poll, 65% of Republicans nationwide think the decision should be left up to the states.

A softer stance could also help Republicans compete for young voters, who overwhelmingly favor legalization and who fled the party in recent presidential elections. "It's one of the easier things for them to do," says Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist whose class Cuccinelli visited. "It's easier than immigration. It's easier than supporting gay rights." For proponents of pot, these are heady days indeed.