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At CPAC, support for DC’s marijuana laws

The conference's libertarian streak favors the District.
Men dressed as superheroes at CPAC, which was probably a bad place to be high. Photograph by Ewa Beaujon.

Marijuana became legal in DC last week, despite threatening talk from the head of the House Oversight Committee and impediments thrown into place by other conservatives in Congress. But at CPAC, the annual gathering of conservatives at National Harbor that ended Saturday, views on pot were more attenuated.

I spoke on Thursday with a group of students from the University of North Florida who had no qualms about marijuana legalization. When I told them that DC had legalized marijuana that day, one of them began clapping while the other two nodded in approval.

It was in this group of students that I found a self-proclaimed libertarian. “I’m definitely for state power, and DC isn’t necessarily a state, but it should have the power to enforce its own laws,” said UNF student Dylan Lowe, who is from Miami.

Among the students I spoke with, none thought states had no right to legalize marijuana. But a debate Thursday onstage in the Potomac ballroom at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center showed a divide among attendees on the issue.

“Having a debate on whether or not to legalize marijuana is like debating whether the sun is going to come up tomorrow. It’s going to come up,” Gary Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, libertarian presidential candidate, and current CEO of Cannabis Sativa Inc said.

Johnson’s antics dominated the debate, called “The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?” His foil was Ann Marie Buerkle, a former nurse and Republican member of Congress. She spoke about the dangers of legalizing marijuana, saying not only can pot lead to depression and long-term memory loss, but that its stronger strains can also be blamed for a quarter of psychotic illnesses.

Both raised their voices; neither quite shouted. After Johnson made a point about the immense cost of enforcing marijuana laws and the prison costs, Buerkle responded that not that many people actually go to jail for marijuana. “The percent of people going to jail for smoking a joint is 1 in 1,200,” she said.

“Anybody do the math?” Johnson quickly retorted. “That’s 1.8 million people!”

At another point in the debate, Johnson feigned a heart attack and fell to the floor.

“This humor is disingenuous. It’s really reprehensible!” said a clearly offended Beurkle.

This type of stark disagreement isn’t all that surprising considering Pew’s recent findings that 38 percent of Republican Baby Boomers favored legalizing pot, compared with 63 percent of Republican Millennials.

Every year CPAC holds a straw poll of attendees, and last year’s roughly reflected that generational difference: 41 percent of attendees voted for the full legalization of marijuana; 21 percent for the legalization of marijuana only for medicinal purposes; and only 31 percent voted for it to remain illegal in all cases.

The poll also points to the influence of libertarian ideology among Millennials. US Senator Rand Paul won the straw poll last year with 31 percent of the vote. And while Paul is not officially for the legalization of marijuana, he is for its decriminalization.

On the third day of CPAC, Howard ‘Cowboy’ Wooldridge stood out in a sea of suits and dresses in a cowboy hat, jeans, and a shirt that read, “COPS SAY LEGALIZE POT: ASK ME WHY.”

“My profession is flying around in a helicopter, spending millions of dollars looking for a green plant,” the Frederick resident and former police detective said, calling enforcement of pot laws “a horrific misallocation of resources.”

DC’s ballot initiative, which passed with support from 70 percent of voters, “wasn’t even close,” he said. “This is the will of the people, the vast majority of the people.” Those in Congress who attempted to derail the legislation are “nosy busybodies” who should “mind their own goddamn business,” he said.

“It’s so inconsistent here at CPAC that everybody screams about Obamacare, one size fits all for 50 states, when one person says five minutes later, ‘but for marijuana we need a federal 50-state solution,’” he said. “Helloooo? Do you see any inconsistencies here?”

Back on the Potomac ballroom stage, Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Company came out on stage to announce the results of this year’s straw poll. Cheers broke out in the ballroom when she showed a slide presented the voting results on marijuana. Another plurality, 41 percent of the voters, had voted for legalizing marijuana, and 26 percent had voted for legalizing it for medical uses.

Rand Paul won the straw poll again. A chant began: “President Paul! President Paul!”

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