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7 Ways To Get Conservative States To Support The Cannabis Industry

Cannabis legalization could be the issue that reverses the tide and unites our fragmented nation in 2020--and beyond.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Turn on the news today, and you'll hear rhetoric and facts that seem completely at odds with each other. It feels like we’ve entered a whole new divisive age of politics, where there’s no issue that can unite Americans.

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Could cannabis reform change that? Could it be the one issue that reverses the tide and unites our fragmented nation?

For over a decade, I have volunteered my time to try to convince state officials to place responsible cannabis legislation on the ballot, partnering with organizations like The Marijuana Policy Project and the ACLU of Ohio in the process. Unfortunately, my home state of Ohio has yet to legalize cannabis (although we have decriminalized it to an extent), the last attempt at legalization being the controversial 2015 ballot initiative known as Issue 3. This measure, rejected with only 36 percent support from voters, was largely viewed in a negative light by pro-cannabis groups because of its requirement of a state-controlled monopoly.  

Rather than envisioning a takeover of legal cannabis by a privileged few or continuing to speak only in the familiar terms of cannabis’ activist old guard, I believe that the best way to ensure cannabis reform not just in Ohio, but in less progressive states across the U.S., rests with adopting a big tent approach. If we aim to move cannabis reform forward, we can no longer afford to alienate political conservatives. 

Related: 5 Conservatives Who Are Pro-Cannabis

Three Key Challenges In Conservative States

It is important to keep in mind that cannabis prohibition is a universal issue; one that’s not tied to a particular political outlook. According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of voters who are staunch Republicans or who lean Republican believe that cannabis should be made legal. However, there is still a fairly wide gap across party lines. That same study reports that 78 percent of voters who are staunch Democrats or who lean Democratic support cannabis legalization. This divide in voter attitudes has a strong influence on why conservative or conservative-leaning states lag far behind on cannabis policy. While many factors influence this disparity, there are three major challenges that need to be addressed before we can successfully enact cannabis reform in most or all conservative states:

1. Bad information

One of the most salient reasons why some people are hesitant to support cannabis legalization is because of misleading and inaccurate information. Often mixed with stereotypes, anti-cannabis smears, that claim that cannabis is a gateway drug or that cannabis is harmful, have been disseminated through the media and other popular sources for generations. Even though these claims are largely inaccurate, they are widely believed. If an individual has spent a lifetime believing something, persuading them towards an alternate viewpoint can be a difficult venture to undertake.

2. Powerful interest groups 

Many of the organizations vehemently opposed to cannabis legalization perceive reform as an existential threat. Some of the key players leading the charge in conservative states against legal cannabis are lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry, prison guard unions, and evangelical Christians. The motivation for most of these groups is built on a fear of loss. For those connected to big pharma, cannabis is perceived as a threatening alternative that, once legalized, would cut into their profits. For prison guard unions, the fact that conservative states have a higher percentage of their populations in the prison system means there are more prisons and prison jobs; those in power seek to maintain the status quo and continue the flow of offenders. Evangelical concerns, unlike those of the aforementioned groups, come less from concern over a diminishing slice of the pie than from adherence to cannabis’ outdated social associations and a reluctance to accept its perceived “vices.” All of these groups tend to have a stronger presence in conservative states than in centrist or liberal ones.  

3. Wealth discrepancies

Conservative states are reported to be less wealthy, this leaves a greater number of individuals on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, comparatively. Poverty is often associated with poorer-functioning schools and substandard educational outcomes— this can lead to new information about topics, including cannabis, traveling at a slower pace. 

One other challenge borne out of the poverty endemic in some conservative communities are higher rates of opioid addiction than the national average. Despite evidence showing that cannabis is an effective option for those struggling with opioid addiction, many residents are unaware or skeptical of this information, believing that legalizing cannabis will exacerbate the opioid crisis.

Given these challenges, how do we persuade conservatives to be pro-cannabis?

1. Increase funding for education

Improving schools and helping people gain access to new science and facts will go a long way towards changing attitudes. This can occur through increased funding by the states and governmental entities, or by securing outside funding from private citizens and businesses. 

2. Share information on cannabis’ historical roots 

Evangelical Christians strive to follow Jesus’ example, yet many are unaware of the fact that Jesus utilized cannabis. In Jewish historical records, Jesus is documented using oils infused with Cannabis sativa. Medical use of cannabis by Judeo-Christian religious communities can be traced back over four millennia, and regular use of cannabis for medical purposes has been documented in Coptic Christian and Jewish ceremonies. Supplementing these historical associations is the foundational Judeo-Christian belief that God created all flora for our benefit, a statement expressed in the first chapter of Genesis.

3. Emphasize strong economic outcomes for farmers and the agricultural industry

Many conservative states lean on agriculture as their economic baseline. Cannabis legalization should be associated with a boom in agriculture. Given the fact that cannabis is easy and inexpensive to grow, grows quickly, and has a myriad of uses, making the case that a change in these laws will be of benefit to farmers will go a long way towards winning new support. In fact, advances in this regard are already winning high-profile conservatives over; U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) championed the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill which fully legalized hemp production, a bill that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support through both houses of Congress. 

4. Position cannabis as a solution to drug addiction

Cannabis can be a tool to combat addiction, including against the opioid epidemic currently ravaging America’s conservative heartland. An argument needs to be made to anti-drug conservatives that rather than being a gateway drug, cannabis can actually be a path out of addiction to hard drugs that ruin lives. In other words: cannabis is an exit-drug.

5. Show that cannabis is a compassionate approach to treating veterans 

Conservative states have high rates of support for and participation in the military. Many service members, through the course of their action in war zones, develop PTSD or other forms of physical and mental trauma. There are many veterans-led groups already advocating for cannabis reform. If attention is brought to that fact, and if cannabis is positioned as a compassionate approach to healthcare for veterans with PTSD, a large number of conservatives can be won over. 

6. Talk about cannabis' medical benefits

Cancer cuts across party lines. Unfortunately, almost everybody has had a loved one affected by cancer. Emphasis on the fact that cannabis is a treatment proven to alleviate or cure various forms of cancer will solidify and increase support from conservatives. 

7. Argue that cannabis prohibition is anti-conservative

Cannabis is in no way equivalent to dangerous drugs such as methamphetamine, heroin, or crack cocaine. One of the traditional foundations of the Republican Party is a belief in limited government. Many conservatives are skeptical of government proposals to limit gun rights or access to tobacco and alcohol; just like on those issues, access to cannabis needs to be positioned as a matter of personal freedom. 

Cannabis reform shouldn’t be limited to left-leaning states, nor should it be publicly supported only by people who have liberal views on matters of political importance. A majority of conservatives already support cannabis reform, yet the way we speak about this issue rarely addresses their concerns. While there are numerous progressive reasons why cannabis should be legalized that are disseminated within the cultural zeitgeist, a major opportunity for wider and faster change is being missed because we’re not adopting a “bilingual” approach, one with a foundation in empathy, respect, and that demonstrates understanding of both liberal and conservative viewpoints. Many states have already blazed a path forward, but new gains can easily be within reach by tweaking our approach. If we do so, I’m confident that all Americans will see greener days ahead, regardless of whether they reside in a blue state or a red state.