White Republicans On Dope

Marijuana remains a taboo issue in mainstream Florida politics.

I have to admit it felt very strange earlier this year when one of the handful of weekly magazines to which I subscribe arrived at my Tampa home with a cover adorned by a marijuana leaf and the headline, "Going to Pot."

It was an appeal for "principled conservative leadership" to re-examine this nation's war on drugs on fiscal grounds (upholding laws against marijuana alone costs about $10-$15 billion a year nationally).

"What's needed now are conservative politicians willing to say enough is enough: Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars down the drain each year. People losing their jobs, their property, and their freedom for nothing more than possessing a joint or growing a few marijuana plants," the magazine intoned.

"And all for what? To send a message? To keep pretending that we're protecting our children?" the cover story asked. "Alcohol Prohibition made a lot more sense than marijuana prohibition does today — and it, too, was a disaster."

The name of the wild-eyed rag running this pro-pot propaganda?

William F. Buckley Jr.'s conservative weekly bible, the National Review.

"And although there is a perfectly respectable case against using marijuana, the penalties imposed on those who reject that case, or who give way to weakness of resolution, are very difficult to defend," Buckley himself wrote two weeks after the marijuana cover story ran. "If all our laws were paradigmatic, imagine what we would do to anyone caught lighting a cigarette, or drinking a beer. Or… committing adultery. Send them all to Guantanamo?"

Marijuana as a public issue now mirrors marijuana as agricultural product: It's growing all over the nation. Consider:

* Eleven states have passed laws since 1996 allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. That law is now being challenged by the forward thinkers at John Ashcroft's Justice Department, and the Supreme Court will rule soon whether the federal government can supersede state rights in this area. Marijuana advocates have not lost a vote on the issue at the state level.

* Two states, California and Arizona, have voted to require treatment rather than jail time for those arrested on drug possession charges. Two others, Utah and Oregon, have voted to reform laws which allow governments to seize cars and personal belongings of anyone connected with drug use.

* Hardly anyone who is seriously running for president these days can deny marijuana use, or at the least, experimentation. President Clinton admitted trying it. John Kerry and Al Gore, the last two Democratic nominees, too. President George W. Bush won't confirm or deny any drug use, but come on …

Given the popular image of Florida as a party-hearty kind of state, with drug use central to both myth and reality from Margaritaville to Miami Vice, you'd think we would be playing a part in this national debate over legalization, drug policy reform and medical marijuana.

But you would be wrong. We've had no referenda here. No statewide political discussion. I never heard of or saw the issue of marijuana included in a campaign's political poll in my nine years of running campaigns.

For a state with a stoner culture, we're stuck in the Stone Age when it comes to talking about pot. We're a red state, not a Panama Red state.

In Tampa Bay and all of Florida, discussion about marijuana in any form or shape — be it decriminalizing, legalizing or allowing use of medical marijuana — remains a third-rail kind of issue. Strictly verboten. A moral decision, not a fiscal one.

"I don't see any Republican talking about medical marijuana," said former state Representative Sandy Murman. "We've not had those conversations. I can't imagine anybody going there. This is very un-conservative."

But Rose Ferlita, a Republican in a nonpartisan Tampa City Council seat, added: "I don't think this is a partisan issue."

She's probably right. In 1988, when a petition drive was mounted to put medical marijuana on the ballot, it was opposed by the late Governor Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and his cabinet. Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean opposed legalizing medical marijuana when he was governor of Vermont.

Buckley isn't the only conservative who sees marijuana as an issue ripe for reform. Ronald Reagan's communications director, Lyn Nofziger, who lost a daughter to cancer, advocates medical marijuana. Charley Reese, the conservative syndicated columnist for the Orlando Sentinel until his retirement in 2001, wrote more than a decade ago that the drug war is a failure and wastes money.

But in Florida, those conservative voices have fallen on deaf ears.

Florida has no major effort underway for any ballot initiatives related to marijuana. The 1999-2000 efforts on behalf of medical marijuana were snuffed out. A later plan to amend the Constitution to require treatment instead of jail time got all the way to the Florida Supreme Court for approval of wording in 2002. But the Florida Drug Treatment Initiative (funded by, among others, liberal billionaire George Soros) died when the court took its sweet time in approving the ballot language. Promises that the movement would be revived in 2004 proved empty.

"Right now, money and power can buy ballot initiatives," Murman said. "When it comes down to it, how many people are really going to support [medical marijuana legislation]? Even your big liberals, are they really going to support something like that?"

Not in Florida.

"I have received various phone calls (3-4) in the last two years asking if I would sponsor legislation to legalize 'grass' for medical purposes," said Ed Homan, a surgeon and Republican member of the Florida House, in an e-mail. "The medical profession, except for the very few doctors who support it, would not back me on the issue. I would run the risk of losing their financial support in future races because mainstream medicine doesn't support it."

The most sympathetic read you will get from a local Republican on the issue comes from Ferlita, whose opinion on medical marijuana is informed by the fact that as an inner-city pharmacy owner, she has a large HIV-positive clientele who depend on the legal marijuana derivative Marinol for relief.

"In terms of terminal patients, marijuana is a wonderful drug," Ferlita said. (Disclosure: I have done political consulting for Ferlita, Murman and Homan in the past.) "Let's not try to overlook the good from something just because it is an illegal drug."

Before you go penciling in Councilwoman Ferlita for your next bong-fest, however, realize that she is also a consultant to a substance abuse nonprofit and sees marijuana as a dangerous gateway drug. She doesn't favor any form of legalization or decriminalization.

"You see many people in those facilities who started with marijuana," Ferlita said. "I can't discount the fact that, right now, marijuana is an illegal drug and it is abused."

So, marijuana is a nice issue for conservative intellectuals to debate, but not for Florida politicians who have to face increasingly moralistic voters every few years. Even if, according to a 2003 Zogby International poll, 41 percent of the U.S. public supports treating marijuana use the same way we do alcohol.

Finally, it's the public that will have to force the issue, and not politicians — particularly conservative ones.

As Buckley put it: "Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great."

The Political Whore remembers that time in college, when his buddy fished that bale out of the Atlantic off the Georgia coast, and he brought it up to our dorm, and we tried to smoke it, and it tasted horrible … uh, sorry, where was I? You can reach Political Whore at 813-832-6427 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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