How a Far-Right Icon Came to Embrace Marijuana Legalization

Pat Robertson wants to decriminalize the use of marijuana. Here's why.

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The other day, we got solid proof that the media is biased toward the left. On a cable-news show seen by millions, a white-haired host declared that although the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, it detains a quarter of the world’s prisoners. “I just think it’s shocking to see how many of these young people wind up in prison,” he said. “And then they get turned into hard-core criminals because they have possession of a small amount of a controlled substance. The whole thing is crazy.”

It’s a sensible position. Strikingly, it came from the host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club” — right-wing icon Pat Robertson. He went on to say that mere possession of pot should be decriminalized.

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The 40-year-old “700 Club” isn’t known for advancing liberal causes. In fact, four days after Robertson, 81, called for the legalization of marijuana, he said on his show that “if enough people were praying,” Jesus Christ might have “stilled” the recent tornadoes that destroyed lives and homes in the Midwest and South.

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Robertson has crept slowly into his pro-legalization position on marijuana. In 2010, he said on the “700 Club” that people shouldn’t get long prison terms for taking “a couple puffs of marijuana.” Shortly afterward, his New York City-based spokesman, Chris Roslan, issued a statement saying Robertson “unequivocally” opposes the use of any drugs. And yet when I spoke with Roslan on Thursday, he told me that Robertson now favors decriminalization of pot smoking.

“If people can go into a liquor store and buy a bottle of alcohol and drink at home legally, then why do we say that the use of this other substance is somehow criminal?” Robertson asked a New York Times reporter recently. He went on to say that imprisoning people made it more it more difficult to reach their hearts with a Christian message.

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His comments raise at least two basic questions: is Robertson right that we spend too much to incarcerate drug users, and is he right that marijuana use is so benign that we shouldn’t prosecute users? The first question is barely a question. The budget of the Drug Enforcement Administration has more than quadrupled since 1990; it is now $2.6 billion per year. And yet all the spending has done little to reduce overall drug use. One could argue that drug abuse would have increased even further without DEA efforts, but at least when it comes to marijuana, the spending seems unwise.

That’s because there’s little evidence that marijuana is dangerous (and as Robertson points out, accurately, it’s certainly no more dangerous than alcohol). There’s also a decent body of evidence that pot has health benefits when used in moderation. In virtually every study, marijuana proves to be far less addictive than alcohol, let alone drugs like cocaine or heroin (here is one good summary–scroll down to the comparative ratings). Smoking marijuana does carry the same risks as smoking tobacco — lung and esophageal cancers — but there’s no good data showing that these risks outweigh the risks of liver problems from drinking. And yet we have spent billions of dollars incarcerating people (particularly young black men) for doing nothing more than smoking a joint.

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Liberal advocates who work for a treatment-based approach to addiction rather than an incarceration approach have hailed Robertson’s comments as common sense in the debate over drugs. But most conservatives have remained silent since his call for legalization. The Christian-right group Focus on the Family released a quiet statement reiterating its opposition to drug legalization. Still, maybe Robertson’s comments will push some of his viewers to reconsider the hard-line approach to drug policy so dominant on the right since at least the ’60s, when “The 700 Club” first went on the air. If Pat Robertson can be convinced that marijuana should be decriminalized, that may give cover to G.O.P. members of Congress who are already wavering on the issue.