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An Unlikely Ally

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It’s unlikely that anyone would confuse Pat Robertson with Walter Cronkite. While both are known as broadcasters, Robertson — an evangelical Christian and host of The 700 Club on the Christian Broadcasting Network — is a controversial commentator in the conservative religious right. Cronkite, during his stint as anchor for the CBS Evening News, had such a reputation for political impartiality that he was called “the most trusted man in America. ”

The story goes that Cronkite was so well trusted by his audience, the largest network news audience at the time, that when he did a commentary against the Vietnam War, then-president Lyndon Johnson reportedly turned to an aide and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Cronkite was correct about the Vietnam War being a failure, and Robertson is correct about another war that is failing — the drug war.

In an interview published by the New York Times on March 7, Robertson said,

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.

His comments were stronger later in the story, going to the heart of the hypocritical nature of the drug war:

If people can go into a liquor store and buy a bottle of alcohol and drink it at home legally, then why do we say that the use of this other substance is somehow criminal?

The hypocrisy Robertson criticizes is widespread. In a previous column, I mentioned Pennsylvania Republican State Rep. Stephen Barrar who, after bragging about the two cases of Pennsylvania wine he had in his car, said he would never vote for anyone who advocated the legalization of marijuana.

He defended his double standard, saying that he drinks wine because he likes the taste while people only smoke marijuana to get high. His comment overlooks the fact that people get intoxicated on both alcohol and marijuana; and while it’s legal to get drunk, getting high will land a person in jail.

Robertson’s view reflects another parallel between the two wars. The Vietnam War ended only after American public opinion became disenchanted with our involvement. If the religious right is now turning against the drug war, perhaps the handwriting is finally on the wall for the government to stop the insanity that has given the United States the largest per capita incarceration rate in the world.

Needless to say, Robertson’s call to treat marijuana like alcohol is being hailed by pro-legalization groups. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, is quoted in the NY Times story as saying, “Pat Robertson still has an audience of millions of people, and they respect what he has to say. … And he’s not backtracking. He’s doubling down.”

Robertson said the government has “gone overboard” in its attempt to be tough on drug use.

Indeed, the police have become militarized, kicking in doors to serve no-knock warrants. Innocent people have been killed by police in the headlong rush to stop drug use, and there’s no apology or change in policy.

Even President Obama’s promise not to raid medical marijuana facilities in states that have legalized such practices has gone by the way.

“It’s completely out of control,” Robertson said in the story.

Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties, the maximums, some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all.

Robertson’s position stops well short of the libertarian position — full legalization of all drugs (it’s none of the government’s business what people choose to ingest). Yet, it’s close enough for us to consider him an ally in this fight. Marijuana will be legalized long before heroin and cocaine, but it’s a start; and it’s a good one.

He’s correct: the criminalization of marijuana is destroying lives, mostly young lives, and most of them are black or Hispanic. It’s not necessarily that those kids use pot more; they just get arrested more. Things get hushed up in the richer white neighborhoods.

Lives are lost and wasted because of the drug war, but that war also destroys the Constitution and, by extension, respect for the concepts of liberty and law and order.

Two states this year — Colorado and Washington — are considering softening their marijuana laws. While Robertson is not campaigning on behalf of those changes, his position could influence more conservative voters in those states to realize that prohibition laws do more harm than good.

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    Rich Schwartzman is managing editor at Chadds Ford Live in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.