NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland -- Here at the Conservative Political Action Conference, weed is pretty popular.
During a debate Thursday, conservatives hooted and hollered in favor of pot legalization, buoyed by the enthusiasm of former New Mexico Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, who argued that the legalization of marijuana was a foregone conclusion and something that would improve the world.
His opponent, Commissioner Anne Marie Buerkle from the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, argued vehemently against the drug that she called “mind-altering” and “destructive.”
The bombastic debate was a perfect window into the fault lines of the Republican Party: On one side, social conservatives seek policies that encourage wholesome behavior, i.e. not smoking pot, and on the other side are Libertarians like Johnson (he ran for president in 2012 on the Libertarian ticket), who advocate for vastly less regulation.
“Having a debate about marijuana legalization is like having a debate about whether the sun is going to come up tomorrow. The sun is going to come up. Marijuana is going to be legalized,” Johnson, the CEO marijuana company Cannabis Sativa, began. He argued that the costs of policing and imprisoning those who use marijuana is expensive and the medical needs of it aren’t being embraced. It’s about “liberty, freedom, making your own decisions!” he said to big cheers.
Many cheered for Buerkle’s points, though they were slightly more subdued.
“You say that’s a victimless crime,” Buerkle said, arguing that drug addiction is destructive. “It affects spouses, it affects siblings, it affects families,” she said. “The question should be: Is it safe?”
The two debated at length about the cost of incarcerating and policing marijuana.
“The percentage of people who are incarcerated for marijuana is less than 1%,” Buerkle argued. “The argument of the cost of incarceration and law enforcement is specious. The bigger question is … do we want to stupefy our youth?”
“Has anyone done the math?” Johnson asked incredulously, pointing to the numbers of Americans who are incarcerated. According to Pew, 1 in 31 Americans are put behind bars every year – that’s 7.3 million Americans. Just 1% of that is still 73,000.
“Stop eating wheat. I have Celiac disease, it’s poison! But should it be illegal?” Johnson said to laughs.
“I think the governor has had great fun with his humor,” she responded. “But it’s not funny!”