Republicans may be sabotaging themselves
Greg Abbott YouTube/screen grab

In my college years, I once took a road trip to west Texas with my roommate. Being a couple of college kids, we also had a baggie of weed stashed in the car. It's a memory that would have faded into nothingness for me, but for the fact that I got pulled over for "speeding" while driving through a very rural county near the town I grew up in. I was, at best, three miles per hour over the limit. I suspected the cop saw a couple of college kids looking like they were driving in from Austin — fair enough! — and thought he could score a marijuana possession bust. This suspicion was confirmed when he barely spoke to us before immediately flinging the car door open and rooting around for drugs.

I managed to distract him with cheerful chatter about my plans to see my mother to underscore that, despite my very Austin-centric appearance, I was but a humble small-town girl from around these parts. Luckily for me, name-dropping my former high school worked. He abandoned the search and sent us on our way without a ticket. But truly, it was just a matter of luck. Just a year before, another roommate of mine had been arrested in the same area for marijuana possession. She grew up in Houston and couldn't appeal to rural chauvinism to escape police clutches.

I recount this story because everyone involved in this story is white: The cop, me, my road trip companion, my roommate who had been arrested before. White privilege offers quite a bit of protection against draconian drug laws. It helped me talk the cop out of searching our car. My arrested roommate avoided prison time for possession, even though she did spend one terrifying night in jail. Whiteness is not an absolute shield against drug laws, of course. As the ACLU research shows, in 2018, cannabis use over the past year was roughly equal among Black and white people in the U.S. And while the study shows Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, that doesn't mean white people were arrested at negligible rates. (In 2018, 567 Black people out of 100,000 were arrested for marijuana possession. In the same year, 156 out of 100,000 white people were arrested.) Republican messaging about cannabis laws promotes a notion that white people have full immunity. Polling, however, suggests that the voters do not think this is true at all.

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Last week, President Joe Biden surprised even Beltway insiders with a sudden announcement that he's mass-pardoning everyone with a federal marijuana possession conviction, and instructing federal bureaucracies to reassess how cannabis is handled under federal drug laws. The widespread belief is this is the first step towards national decriminalization. New polling from Morning Consult and Politico shows these steps are widely popular with Americans. The pardons are more popular with Black voters (74% supporting), but for white and Latino voters, the support is still robust, approaching two-thirds. This follows previous polling that shows the majority of voters, regardless of race, support cannabis decriminalization. Among Republican voters, there's higher support for decriminalization than for keeping pot illegal.

It would be nice if this reflected a national shift towards racial justice. For some, especially Democratic and independent voters, that likely is a factor. But the polling of Republicans suggests another factor: Even conservative white people are worried that they or their family members are at risk for a possession arrest.

And so it's strange to see Republican leaders reacting to Biden's cannabis moves by doubling down on the '60s-style hysterics over the supposed evils of smoking pot. Vice News collected the reactions, and the hyperbolic language from Republicans is notable for how out of step it is with the polling data. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement lambasting Biden for a supposed "revolving door for violent criminals." Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson claimed Biden "has waved the flag of surrender in the fight to save lives from drug abuse." Fox News greeted Biden's announcement with their usual five-alarm-fire coverage, with Sean Hannity dramatically implying " a huge number of drug traffickers and gang members" will be released on the streets.

In truth, this decision is setting exactly zero people free. No one is currently sitting in federal prison for marijuana possession. What the pardons will do is remove barriers to employment and housing faced by thousands of people with prior convictions, which — in addition to being a good thing on its own — also reduces crime.

Perhaps most surprising is that Mehmet Oz, the snake oil-peddling TV doctor running as a GOP Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, seized on the Biden announcement to hammer his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. Fetterman has been outspoken in favor of cannabis decriminalization, a view supported by 66% of Pennsylvania voters. Despite this, the Oz campaign told Axios they believe they can use this issue to paint Fetterman as "soft on crime" and "extreme."

For decades, Republican messaging on crime has not really been about crime; rather, it's been used as a convenient cover for tickling racial anxieties in white voters. That's why candidates campaign on "crime" even when crime rates are low or dropping, as they have been in the past year as the U.S. emerges from the pandemic, and why the single best policy move that could affect the murder rate — expanding gun restrictions — gets ignored because those laws would affect white gun owners too. It's why GOP advertising paints violent crime as a problem in blue states, even though it's actually worse in red states. It's why Republican concerns over "crime" don't appear to extend to prosecuting the January 6 insurrectionists. And it's why many Republicans continue to support Donald Trump, who is gearing up to be the 2024 nominee despite his wide-ranging legal problems, which include allegations of tax fraud, election interference and stealing classified documents.

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Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville stripped away lingering plausible deniability on this front last week when the Republican politician gave a speech equating anyone who has enslaved ancestors with criminals. "They want reparations, because they think the people that do the crime are owed that," he declared to a stadium of cheering Trump fans in Nevada. "Reparations" is shorthand for proposals that the U.S. government compensate the descendants of enslaved people. Tuberville was making the racist subtext of "anti-crime" messaging the text.

Indeed, much of the conservative messaging on Biden's cannabis policy has been a head nod to those ideas. Ann Coulter, a longtime fan of the Grateful Dead, wrote, "NO ONE GOES TO FEDERAL PRISON FOR MARIJUANA POSSESSION! I don't care what the 'conviction' says," and claimed these pardons only affect "Violent Felons." On Fox News, Will Cain argued, "In your mind, the picture that is created is some guy walking around with a joint ends up in federal prison. That's probably not who we are talking about here."

The comments have a lot more cover than Tuberville's, but it's the same idea. They want their mostly-white, mostly-Republican audiences to imagine the current laws don't impact people like them. Such racist messaging certainly works on those audiences when it comes to other misleading stories about crime. With cannabis, however, polling suggests that white, conservative people are far more skeptical, and they do worry that they personally could be impacted.

Republicans have been in this rut of using crime as a stand-in for white racial anxieties for so long; however, it seems many of them haven't gotten the message that the landscape has changed when it comes to cannabis. A similar situation may be brewing when it comes to what polls reveal about abortion rights. Republicans seem taken aback by the strong majority of Americans who want to keep abortion legal and the idea that the recent wave of GOP-led state abortion bans might be fomenting a backlash against their party. Republican messaging against human rights depends on reassuring their potential voters that it's always someone else who will pay the price for criminalizing widely normal behaviors like smoking pot or having an abortion. But there may be harder limits now on how effective those reassurances will be.