When Donald Trump picked Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate for the 2016 presidential election, the news cycle was flooded with first takes on the VP pick's position on controversial issues like cannabis reform. Pence governs from a state with some of the harshest marijuana laws in America. But the former tough-on-crime legislator has recently shown signs of taking a more progressive approach to combating drug use.
To find out more about Pence, we reached out to Hunter White - Communications Director for the activist group Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP). Here's what he had to say about Trump's VP candidate, who will be speaking tonight at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Pro-life should mean pro-cannabis
One of the first things Americans learned about Mike Pence after he got the nod as Trump's running mate is that the Indiana governor is an ardent pro-lifer. And that stance has already had an effect on the cannabis discourse among right-wing Americans. RAMP arrived at this week's Republican National Convention armed with talking points on why being pro-life should mean being pro-pot.
"'You can't be pro-life and against medical marijuana.' That's going to be a big message specifically. With the pick of Pence and this hard shift on the right for a lot of social issues, pro-life is going to be a big talking point. So we're trying to hook into that because a lot of people are talking about it."
And here's how RAMP connects the pro-life stance with medical marijuana.
"If a child is to be born with an abnormality that makes them have incurable seizures, it doesn't make sense to say that child must be born, but then deny that child the medicine that will allow them to live once they are born. It can't just be about birth, it has to also be about quality of life." - Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition
We don't know if the right-to-life angle will make Pence warm to cannabis. But we do know that he has had a more-than-cordial relationship with the prohibition industry. More specifically, his gubernatorial campaign in 2012, he received backing from a company whose business is locking up drug offenders and other lawbreakers.
"There is some - I wouldn't necessarily say fishy - but I guess he has some fitting campaign donors," White told Civilized. "Apparently The Geo Group - which is a big private prison industry group down here. They were one of his top campaign donors for his governor campaign. And so it's interesting because not only are [Indiana's] drug laws so draconian, but it also so happens that their governor - who kind of wants to keep it that way - also got a lot of money from organizations that benefit off of those kind of laws at the expense of people."
Softening on War on Drugs?
Pence has taken a tough-on-crime agenda for much of his political career. But his approach began to shift in the fall of 2015 when he created a task force to investigate alternative ways to combat drug use.
"We simply cannot arrest our way out of the problem," Pence said during a press conference last September. "We have to recognize that we also have to address the root causes of addiction and focus on treatment."
And White says that Pence has already shown a willingness to liberalize drug laws.
"Indiana is experiencing an HIV epidemic right now - specifically because of how draconian their laws are. And Pence actually signed a needle-exchange program, which was very positive, hopefully that will combat it."
And hopefully that will be a first step toward relaxing other drug laws in the Hoosier State.
Task force is scapegoating Colorado
Unfortunately, not everything coming from the task force is positive. White told Civilized that the group hasn't discussed cannabis much, but when it comes up, they've scapegoated another state for Indiana's problem with black market marijuana.
"Apparently they basically put all the blame on Colorado for why marijuana is an issue in their state," White said. "But they had a marijuana issue long before Colorado [legalized]. And they're going to have one long after every other state has dealt with the problem positively....The real cause of the issue is prohibition itself."
Stance shifting on medical marijuana?
White noted that there has been a push to legalize medical marijuana since 2012. But the movement has been led mainly by Democrats, whose efforts have been thwarted in the legislature. They may one day have an ally in Pence, who says that his position on the issue could change.
Earlier this year, White said that Fred Pfenninger - an attorney and President of RAMP's Indiana chapter - spoke with Pence at the "Washington Township Republican Dinner" in Indianapolis.
"He talked to Pence and he asked him what he thought about marijuana and Pence told Pfenninger that he wasn't really in favour of it. And Pfenninger said, 'Okay, but what about medical marijuana?' And Pence kinda stopped for a moment and - this is how it was described to me - and then told him, 'I'm not there yet. But I can see it.'"
White sees that as cause for optimism. "I interpret that interaction as he could be persuaded to see the medical aspect of it. It didn't sound as hardline as what I'd expect or maybe people would expect out of him." And every state that has legalized recreational marijuana legalized medical marijuana first, so allowing medicinal cannabis use could be the first step toward broader reforms for Indiana.
Pence's position might not matter
So which Pence will show up in Washington, D.C. if the Republicans win the 2016 election - the tough-on-crime prohibitionist or the tepid yet open-minded reformer? The bigger question might be, does it matter? White says that there's a strong chance Pence won't have much of a say about how the country is run.
"I do question how much influence [Pence] would have. I understand that that's an unknown, but I question it because...there are rumours that Trump wasn't particularly in love with the guy and it was more of a political decision [to choose him as VP]….We don't know a lot about Donald Trump, but I think we know that if he doesn't particularly like you, or isn't a particular fan of you, he's not really going to listen or give you that much of the time of day."
So regardless of what Pence's position on cannabis might be or become, his views could get trumped by The Donald.
Banner image: New York, NY USA - July 16, 2016: Mike Pence speaks during Donald Trump introduction Governor Mike Pence as running for vice president at Hilton hotel Midtown Manhattan (lev radin / Shutterstock.com)