How Republicans Learned to Love Pot

Die-hard conservatives are suddenly high on the legalization of cannabis. Is it about the potential health benefits, or simply hooking more voters?
FE_GOP Weed_01 Source: Illustration by Alex Fine for Newsweek

Jason Isaac, a fourth-generation Texan and conservative state representative, has a clear memory of his first mind-­expanding encounter with marijuana.

It was January 2015, and the Texas state Capitol building was swarming with lawmakers returning to work. Two women were sitting on the stairwell opposite his office, waiting for him. He sat down with the pair—his constituents—and heard their stories. One had a child with intractable epilepsy, the other a child with severe autism.

Both said their young kids suffered uncontrollable seizures, hurting themselves and family members. Prescription medications had consistently failed to treat the symptoms. The moms were asking for the freedom to try something new. Cannabidiol (CBD)—a chemical compound in marijuana that does not make people high—is believed to alleviate seizures. But giving it to their children in any form would put the women on the wrong side of Texas law.

And raising the issue, Isaac knew, would put him on the wrong side of the Republican Party.

For decades, marijuana legalization was a nonstarter in Washington, and particularly in Republican politics. In a viewpoint still embodied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the party considered cannabis a dangerous gateway drug; it contributed to the degradation of Christian morals and ­needed to be controlled through strict policing. “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” Sessions has said.

Just a few years ago, being a conservative lawmaker and wanting to talk about marijuana made you an outsider, and to support legalization was a kind of political suicide, seen as an abandonment of the Republican Party’s deeply entrenched identification with traditional values and the war on drugs. And nowhere was that stigma more intense than in Texas.

But as state experimentation with legalization grew, media coverage of marijuana’s supposed health benefits increased, and public opinion and

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