How Marijuana Could Split the Tea Party

It's well recognized that Tea Partiers don't agree on everything, and that in fact they disagree over quite a lot. Get enough organizers together in the same room, an activist once told me, and you're bound to have some tense arguments about politics, policy, and the movement itself. Organizers have insisted that the Tea Party stick to its core principles--less spending, less government, opposing President Obama as a socialist--and not get sidetracked by any other issues, many of them social, on which its members coincidentally also have strong opinions.

But among the movement's potential fissures, here's one that hasn't been talked about so much: legalization of marijuana.

Marijuana legalization has gained steam in the last year and a half, and it's becoming an issue in multiple states. A handful will vote on medical marijuana ballot initiatives this year, and in California, Proposition 19 would allow counties to legalize marijuana outright legalize possession for personal use statewide and allow counties to legalize the sale of marijuana, taxing and regulating it more or less like alcohol. The California measure appears to have a reasonable shot at success: internal and SurveyUSA polling have shown it in the lead, while the more reputable Field Research has shown Prop. 19 trailing 48% to 44%. If it passes, it will shock many people who haven't considered legalization of marijuana to be a remote possibility in this country; President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder will have to decide whether to uphold federal drug laws or allow the will of California's voters to stand; marijuana will explode as a national topic of discussion.

The issues at play happen to mesh perfectly with the Tea Party's extant ideological divides. Beneath the movement's strict focus on fiscal matters, libertarianism and social conservatism are the two dominant leanings that most readily oppose each other. The Tea Party is an amalgam of Ron Paul supporters and libertarians, mixed in with disaffected Bush voters whose personal views are grounded firmly in social conservatism.

Marijuana seems like as good an issue as any to bring these ideological poles into conflict. Libertarians support looser drug laws as an expression of their most basic principle--less government involvement in private lives; social conservatives and traditionalists react viscerally to drug legalization as a descent into societal depravity. In broad terms, libertarians and social conservatives couldn't see marijuana more differently.

(Gay marriage holds a similar power in this regard, but the outright legalization of non-medical marijuana might be more controversial, simply because it hasn't been on everyone's radar screens. People are used to talking about gay marriage; marijuana probably has more of a surprise factor.)

On top of that, marijuana is becoming a states' rights issue. The Obama administration has enacted a policy of deference to state policies on medical marijuana, and if California's Prop. 19 passes in 2010, or if a similar measure passes in California or elsewhere in 2012, the subsequent Obama/Holder decision over what to do about it will inevitably call into question whether the federal government should (constitutionally, it certainly can) supersede the decision of state voters.

Small-government conservatives love states' rights, and they dislike the federal government. It's another problem for Tea Partiers who are also social conservatives, as it could require them to confront the general notion of states' rights. Ron Paul, for the record, has said drug policies should be left up to the states; social conservatives would likely wither from that principled view if pot were actually about to become legal.

This isn't to say that marijuana will divide the Tea Party. The movement has stuck to its fiscal-conservative, anti-stimulus, anti-Obama principles successfully so far, learning to ignore the myriad disagreements its members have over other issues. If an issue is to divide the Tea Party, it will have to supplant Tea Party affiliation in its importance to the Tea Party's members, which will require a significant fading of the movement. It could happen over marijuana in California, though maybe not in other places. But if there's any issue to jump up and force Tea Partiers to take different sides, marijuana looks like a perfect wedge.