Updated: Aug 30
Given how wildly divisive his politics tend to be, and how roundly progressives have dismissed the views of the Christian Broadcasting Network founder, Robertson’s recent comments on marijuana have sent shockwaves through the battlefields of the Culture Wars. In an interview with the New York Times’ Jesse McKinley on March 7, Robertson expressed his support for marijuana legalization and, for the last eleven days, the media has been buzzing. After having made some guarded pro-legalization comments on The 700 Club a week earlier, Robertson unequivocally told McKinley ““I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol. I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.” These comments seem all the more shocking given Robertson’s popularity with far-right social conservative groups. Robertson, however, continued by explaining that he does not, nor does he plan to, smoke marijuana, but legalization is the only way to bring down soaring incarceration rates. Mindful of alienating his core constituency, however, he also added the rather remarkable belief that the War on Drugs and prison overpopulation were attributable not to reactionary conservative policies but a “liberal mindset to have an all-encompassing government.”
Naturally, Robertson’s comments begged instant analysis. In the Christian Science Monitor, the most respected national Christian periodical currently in circulation, Daniel Wood contemplated this issue in “Pat Robertson Backs Legal Marijuana. Will Other Conservatives Follow?” Wood begins by noting how reasonable Robertson’s rationale is. Robertson has shown a new sense of self-awareness, explaining, “we’ve said, ‘We’re conservative, we’re tough on crime.’ That’s baloney. It’s costing us billions and billions of dollars.” Robertson also professes to being deeply troubled by the fact that America makes up 5% of the world’s population but has 25% of its prisoners. Robertson’s conclusions lead Professor Robert MacCoun of the Berkeley School of Law to remark ,“he’s wrong about many things, but the fact that he is someone who usually represents the extreme conservative point of view makes the coming legalization debate more wide open now.” An expert on marijuana laws, MacCoun also points out that Robertson’s stance may help loosen up the rigidity of national discussions over drugs. “We can now have a more grown up discussion about what are the tools in the tool box – rather than just hyperlatives hurled at each side from the extremes.” Though Wood also covers critics of Robertson’s views – notably Calvina Fay of the Drug Free America Foundation – he clearly sees the positive potential for a political sea change in Robertson’s comments.
Whereas Wood and Gray see something authentic and earnest in Robertson’s newly professed sentiments, Lee Siegel of The Daily Beast is far more cynical. In “Is Pat Robertson’s Reefer Madness Code for Resisting Mormon Advances?” Siegel views Robertson’s new tack as a stroke of political genius, a means of slowing down – or maybe even derailing – Mitt Romney’s seemingly inevitable march toward the Republican Party Presidential nomination. Siegel claims that, in advocating for the legalization of marijuana, Robertson has “radically redefined Christianity” in a way that is inhospitable to Romney’s straight arrow, abstinent lifestyle. In claiming “I don’t think [Christ] was a teetotaler,” Robertson situates Christianity as being far wetter than the Mormon Church would have you believe, meaning, in Siegel’s view, that “an abstinent Mormon couldn’t possibly claim to speak for a Christian America” and “Santorum’s attempt to join Catholic obsessions to evangelical anxieties now has a new life.” While Siegel may overreach in his conclusions – Mitt Romney’s nomination still remains all-but-inevitable – he is quite right to point out the larger political ramifications of Robertson’s comments.
For whatever reason, former Drug Czar Bill Bennett found Colbert’s critiques insufficiently rigorous, leading the CNN.com contributor to pen his own column, simply titled “Pat Robertson is Wrong About Marijuana.” You may remember Bennett from last month’s article on Whitney Houston, in which the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy claimed that his office had successfully beaten back the “cocaine and heroine epidemics” of the 1980s and 1990s. This month, Bill Bennett continues to trumpet the value of the War on Drugs, though he shows much great respect for Robertson in the process than he did for Tony Bennett, who he called an “idiot” for supporting the legalization of marijuana. While using guardedly respectful language, Bennett claims that to take Robertson’s view is to “renounce common sense.”
Like most pundits who attempt to boil down complex socio-political issues to their personal conception of “common sense,” Bennett offers a series of half-hearted rationales for his belief that America must not “surrender” in its battle against pot. Bennett explains, for instance, that “of the cannabis users who entered treatment services from 2000 to 2008, nearly a quarter report psychiatric problems,” though he does not consider the fact that psychiatric problems might be an independent indicator of a need for treatment and not necessarily a direct result of marijuana use. He also states that “new research suggests that driving under the influence of marijuana could double a person’s risk of getting in a serious or fatal car crash.” This fact should seem blindingly obvious for anyone remotely familiar with the dangers posed driving under the influence of alcohol, and should no more damn Mary Jane than it does Johnny Walker. Bennett consistently evades the liquored-up elephant in the room, refusing to acknowledge Robertson’s central tenet that marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol. Instead, he elects to regress into his comfortable world of nostalgia, pining for “the late 1980s and early 1990s [when], with the help of the Partnership for a Drug Free America, America’s policymakers and opinion shapers got tough on drugs.” In a sense, Bennett’s failure to create an intellectually coherent critique of Robertson’s views speaks volumes about the present nature of America’s Drug War.
With the looming ballot measures of the partial legalization of marijuana possession in both Washington and Colorado, Pat Robertson’s comments were bound to stir up controversy. But are they earnest expressions of Robertson’s true beliefs, as Daniel Wood seems to belief, or is Lee Siegel right to consider them an example of inspired politicking for the evangelical political agenda? Considering how irritated Robertson’s longtime supporters at Focus on the Family seem to be at his statement, one is tempted to see this as a true expression of Robertson’s sentiments. And if that’s the case, what the heck is next?