11:39 AM ET
Marijuana could be the next gay marriage -- a contentious social issue that suddenly picks up broad, bipartisan support for change. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell came out in favor of legalizing hemp, joining Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and fellow Kentucky Republican Rand Paul to cosponsor a bill that would allow Americans to grow it, NBC News' Kasie Hunt reports. Of course, hemp is not the same as regular marijuana. Industrial hemp has much less THC, the chemical that gets people high. But right now, hemp is classified in the same category as drugs like heroin and LSD. On Thursday, the Kentucky state senate voted to legalize hemp if the federal government legalizes it too. Oregon has legalized hemp cultivation, but farmers risk federal prosecution.
Again, hemp is not the same thing as marijuana, "but some law enforcement groups say it is a step that could lead to the legalization of marijuana," Hunt writes. Other lawmakers -- yes, even conservative Republicans! -- have addressed legalizing the drug itself. The most fascinating example was last week, when Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said twice he was "evolving" on the issue of marijuana legalization when political science students at the University of Virginia asked him about voters legalizing weed in Colorado and Washington last fall. "I’m not sure about Virginia’s future [in terms of marijuana legalization]," Cuccinelli said. "But I and a lot of people are watching Colorado and Washington to see how it plays out." He explained it as a federalism thing: "I don't have a problem with states experimenting with this sort of thing. I think that's the role of states."
Cuccinelli is expected to be the next Republican nominee for Virginia governor. He's a very conservative dude. He led the states' rebellion against Obamacare. He's said conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia isn't conservative enough. In the same UVA appearance, he said he didn't support public pools because they distort the free market.
More remarkable is that Cuccinelli later clarified his comments -- but not in the traditional political definition of the word, which is "retract all previous statements." Instead, he questioned the war on drugs:
"What I expressed to [the students] was an openness to observe how things work there, both in terms of the drug side and the economics. One issue that is often discussed is how the war on drugs itself has played out. Have we done this the right way? It's been phenomenally expensive...
[If the government] going to put people in jail and spend $25,000 [to] $30,000 a year for a prison bed, do we want it to be for someone who's pushing marijuana or pushing meth? I'll tell you what, that $30,000 for the meth pusher is well worth the deal."
Rand Paul has gone further in talking about marijuana legalization than his pro-him pal McConnell. In November, like Cuccinelli, Paul said, "States should be allowed to make a lot of these decisions... I think, for example, we should tell young people, 'I'm not in favor of you smoking pot, but if you get caught smoking pot, I don't want to put you in jail for 20 years...'"
It's important to explain what's radical and what isn't in this position. Few people who get caught with marijuana go to jail for 20 years, so opposing that isn't a big deal. It's the boring part of Paul's comment -- let states make the call on weed -- that actually is radical. As Reason's Jacob Sullumexplained, a Republican senator supporting "devolving drug policy decisions to the states is pretty bold in the current political context." He writes:
It is the policy embodied in the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011, which was co-sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). How many of their fellow congressmen joined them? Nineteen, all but one (Dana Rohrabacher of California) a Democrat.
So, how are the states doing? On Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced people arrested on minor pot possession charges won't be booked and held for arraignment anymore, The Wall Street Journal reports. Instead, they'll be released with appearance tickets, which means the person is free until his or her court date. But the issue is being addressed outside liberalism's East Coast capital. In state legislatures like Rhode Island, Maine, and Pennsylvania, the push for legalization in 2013 has, so far, been dominated by Democrats. But there are signs Republicans might ease their opposition, too. This week, Pennsylvania state Sen. Daylin Leach toldRaw Story that if her marijuana legalization bill was voted on by "secret ballot," it would pass. Privately, Leach said, some of the "most conservative" lawmakers agree on legalization, because it's "just another government program" that doesn't work.
In New Hampshire, some Republican lawmakers are willing to go on the record. "Marijuana can let them die in peace, and if this helps them, so be it," Republican state Rep. Will Infantine said after hearing testimony from people with debilitating illnesses, The Dartmouth reports Friday. A bill to legalize medical marijuana is expected to pass by mid-March and make New Hampshire the last New England state to allow it. Last year, the Democratic governor vetoed two medical marijuana bills, but current Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she won't veto the current bill.
One of the most fascinating marijuana moments this year was when conservative former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo announced he would smoke pot to make good on his bet with Adam Hartle, a stand-up comic, over whether Colorado would legalize weed. "Look, I made a bet with the producer of the film that if Amendment 64 passed ( I did not think it would) that I would smoke pot," Tancredo said. "I will therefore smoke pot under circumstances we both agree are legal under Colorado law." His family eventually peer pressured him out of it.