A Growing Power Bloc of Right-Wing Women Is Fighting for Marijuana Reform
In the haze of an election year, bringing up marijuana reform among politicians is a pretty good way to clear a room. Zoe Russell knows, because she’s tried. She’s with an activist group in Texas working to shake some of the stigma among Republicans about supporting marijuana reform.
“At the beginning, nobody would do stuff with us,” Russell said. “But we’re pushing people in that direction.”
A 2015 Gallup poll shows that 58 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal. Among Texans, that number is even higher: according to a 2016 poll, 74 percent of people in Texas support some kind of change to marijuana policy, whether it’s okaying medical marijuana or simply decriminalizing possession.
In the past few years, prohibitionists have held on—since 2014, about a quarter of Texans think marijuana should never be legal, in any shape or form. Russell, a first-year law student and assistant executive director for Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP), says her group’s work has “slowly beaten back that fear” of supporting marijuana publicly.
“Politics is a popularity contest, and running for office is raising money and then a popularity contest,” she said. “We’re asking people to truly have opinions and push things ... You have to be willing to take that first step and just say what you think.”
RAMP is part of a constellation of right-leaning groups that oppose the war on drugs—the name itself is a take on LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The volunteer group has more than 7,300 likes on Facebook and about 1,000 members on its email list. Half of its eight board members are women.
“Women are driven and they get things done,” Russell said. “Politicians will bow down to a woman on a mission.”
Conservative women have mobilized around this issue in part because of its medical potential. One pro-medical marijuana group called MAMMA (Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism) was started by a “lifelong Republican” Texas woman with an autistic son.
“There’s been so much misinformation—that’s really to the detriment of the medical side of marijuana,” Russell said. “You’ve just taken marijuana out of the mix entirely. So now people aren’t even willing to believe that there could potentially be medical benefits to a plant.”
Behind closed doors, Russell says many Republican leaders agree that marijuana policy isn’t working. But when asked to come out in support of marijuana reform, those same people—running for re-election later this year, or tied up in high-profile fights for conservative legislation on red meat issues like abortion and immigration—have a variation of the same response: It’s not my priority.
“We get that a lot ... but that’s probably just because they’re embarrassed to be associated with the topic,” she said. “If it was their priority at all, they would probably do something about it.”
Though they don’t endorse candidates, Russell and her fellow RAMPers target Republicans already active in the GOP, slipping into conversations at meet-and-greets what seems to be a contradiction in the party’s stance on marijuana—that prohibition is against the conservative principles of smaller government and stronger civil liberties. These arguments, Russell says, have swayed plenty of younger Republicans to reconsider their stance on marijuana.
“We’re cognizant of the big ask,” she said, “but it’s also something that would be hugely beneficial.”
Marijuana reform can take three different strains: legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing possession, and legalizing recreational marijuana. Though they differ on which reform is best to start with, RAMP women, by and large, are not tokers.
RAMP’s co-founder Ann Lee, who started the group with her husband Bob, has convinced plenty of committed Republican women like herself to change their minds about marijuana reform. Only a few of the women I spoke with have ever tried it and none use it regularly. In fact, Lee, who at 86 often uses a cane to get around, said she has tried edibles her son gave her but prefers a glass of wine. “I don’t like smoking to begin with,” she said, “and there are so many other ways of using marijuana.”
Back in 1964, when Lee first became involved in politics, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater said they sought a government to enforce “law and order,” in part as a response to civil rights and Vietnam War protesters. Later that decade, Richard Nixon won the presidency, in no small part because of his respect for the “law and order” stance.
But pockets of conservatives have begun to shift their tough-on-crime stance, especially harsh penalties for marijuana. Simply put, they say marijuana prohibition is bad law.
“Republicans have always been for law and order,” Lee said, in her southern drawl. “But we have to realize that there have been times in the history of this great country that we have had bad law.”
Lee, who was born and raised in 1930s Louisiana and graduated from the University of Texas, sees a parallel between Jim Crow laws of her youth and the restrictive drug policies today.
“I grew up with bad law,” she says. “When I was growing up, it said whites and blacks couldn’t go to school to together. That was bad law ... The drug war gave us a new Jim Crow. It haunts me.”
By far, Lee’s most effective tool in changing women’s minds about marijuana is the story of her son Richard.
In 1990 Richard, the fourth of the Lees’ five boys, was paralyzed in an accident. While in Houston’s TIRR Hospital rehabilitating, he came across research that suggested a new kind of treatment for the muscle spasms he suffered after his spinal cord injury: marijuana.
“That was something I didn’t want to hear,” she said. Later, she explained, “It took a lot of prayer and a lot of research and it was basically the belief in our son. We realized we were wrong about marijuana.”
Lee’s marijuana activism began after Richard moved to Oakland to start what became Oaksterdam University, a “cannabis college” that teaches best practices on marijuana horticulture and ingestion methods. Lee, who often wears a silver necklace with a giant cross pendant, sees support for marijuana—medical marijuana in particular—as an extension of her fervent pro-life beliefs.
“Pro-life has got to imply that you support a quality of life,” Lee said. “Yes, you don’t want that child to be aborted, but that child is born and has epilepsy, that child should not be able to use marijuana to control his seizures? It doesn’t make sense. Marijuana enhances the quality of life for people who need it.”
Lee has recruited other pro-life Republican women to her cause. Ileene Robinson, 71, has been friends with Lee for years, but when she first heard about Lee’s marijuana advocacy, Robinson said she had one thought: Boy, she is nuts.
“I thought, this gray-haired, granny-looking lady is out here campaigning for marijuana? What is she talking about?” Robinson said.
Robinson, known around the Texas Capitol for her volunteer work on legislation to aid Texans with disabilities, campaigned for the passage of a 2015 law that allows doctors to prescribe CBD oil, which is extracted from marijuana but doesn’t produce a high, to patients with severe epilepsy. It was a first for Texas, even more so because it passed in this overwhelmingly Republican-run legislature to acknowledge the medical benefits of marijuana-based treatment.
Marijuana policy experts say its wording puts doctors at risk of federal prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act, which outlaws prescribing drugs like marijuana. Laws in other states indicate doctors can recommend, rather than prescribe, marijuana-derived treatments. But Robinson saw passing the act as a step forward in public conversation about medical marijuana.
“I walked miles in and out of legislators’ offices for this issue,” Robinson said. “Convincing very conservative people to even talk about this has been a very big milestone.”
Because the Texas legislature meets every other year, reform advocates see 2016 as a year to prep before the 2017 legislature meets. Russell, RAMP’s assistant executive director, says they’d like to expand medical marijuana for treatment of other conditions like PTSD and to ease the side effects of chemotherapy.
Among conservatives, the reefer reputation may continue to be one of RAMP’s biggest obstacles. So far, only a handful of elected Republicans have been willing to come out in support of a drug that’s associated with laziness, junk food, and juvenile humor. As a younger person advocating for marijuana reform Russell says people have only one idea about her when they first meet.
“I’m so young in the GOP that it’s just like, ‘You’re a pothead. It’s a given,’” she said. “As a Republican, you just can’t go away. If they see you one time, they’re sure they can write you off. But if you stick around, they can’t write you off. They have to take you as a whole being.”