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Why Surging Support for Marijuana Is Hurting the GOP and Will For Years to Come

Don't expect a major turnaround from the GOP on cannabis, just electoral pain across America.

As the movement to expand access to marijuana grows across the country, the Republican Party, with the exception of its kooky libertarian wing, has a bad case of reefer madness. Gov. Rick Perry, who's no stranger to moments of mental madness, equated marijuana use to murder, while Gov. Chris Christie has more or less said he’d prefer dead kids to stoned kids. During the 2012 election, Mitt Romney promised to "fight tooth and nail" against pro-marijuana legalization.  

While national polling shows more than 55% of Americans support pot legalization, Republicans remains strongly opposed, and in fact, more than two-thirds of Republicans voted against legalization in Colorado and Washington.

With Republicans likely to remain opposed, marijuana could emerge as a big cultural wedge issue winner in both the 2014 and 2016 elections. The GOP holds a majority in the House of Congress and is threatening in the Senate come November, but in state elections, marijuana on the ballot has big potential to harm Republican candidates. In January, the Florida Supreme Court approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize medical marijuana, assuring that the initiative will appear on the state’s November ballot. The referendum on pot may, in turn, determine the winner of the state’s gubernatorial race. According to the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, 70 percent of Floridians favor medical marijuana, which augers well for Democratic challenger Charlie Christ, given Gov. Rick Scott opposes the bill. There is considerable evidence that vote turnout rises when pot is on the ballot, especially for young voters who would naturally favor a candidate who supports it.

Nate Cohn, a columnist for the New Republic, writes that assuming Hillary Clinton would be the nominee, she “would be well-positioned to deploy the issue. Her strength among older voters and women mitigates the risk that she would lose very much support, while legalization could help Clinton with the young, independent, and male voters who could clinch her primary or general election victory.”

Democrats are already winning ideological clashes in this country’s cultural war. On issues from same-sex marriage to the death penalty; from abortion to gun control; poll after poll shows a majority of Americans lean left. Pot legalization is shaping up to be another issue Democrats could apply a blowtorch to Republicans in blue and purple states, for the GOP is handcuffed when it comes to dealing intelligently on the war on drugs. .

The Republican Party is institutionally opposed to any effort to roll back draconian drug laws, because on this issue the party must serve four masters.

1. Private Prison Corporations: The industrial prison complex is one of the party’s major donors. Since 2008, three major private prison corporations have spent nearly $50 million on campaign donations and lobbyists to push tough anti-drug legislation at the state and federal level. In 2011, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) released a report revealing the political strategies of private prison corporations “working to make money through harsh policies and longer sentences.” A significant finding was that while the total prison population increased by 15 percent, the number of people held in private prisons increased by 120 since 2001.

According to an expose of the for-profit prison industry, the five biggest recipients of private prison campaign donations are all Republicans. They include Rep. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX).

Thanks to corporate political influence, the war on drugs became a war on the poor. As Chris Hedges has pointed out, the poor are of no value to corporations if they're on the streets, but put a poor person in prison, and voila, corporations earn up to $50,000 per year courtesy of taxpayer dollars paid for the outsourcing of U.S. prisons. Effectively, corporations have told the Republican Party that if they're going to take the risk of building the prisons, lawmakers had better enact tough drug laws to ensure they can be filled.

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