Marijuana Legalization Is Around The Corner, Says Former Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele

There's no better time than the present to discuss marijuana legalization according to Michael Steele, who helped shape national policy during his tenure as Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Steele recently told Civilized that the America is finally ready to take a critical look at its outdated drug policies.

"Broadly speaking, the opportunity's there now for communities across the country to reevaluate the historic stance on marijuana use, specifically with respect to medical marijuana," he said.

But that doesn't mean Steele fully supports legalization.

"I've always been much more favorably disposed to medical marijuana use, especially after understanding the medicinal aspects of it and certainly having friends and associates who have suffered various illnesses where it was very clear that marijuana was a difference maker for them, day-in and day-out in terms of their pain management and overall wellbeing," Steele added. "I've since evolved to appreciating the broader use of it."

By 'appreciating' he means respecting the decisions of adults who choose to have a puff. But Steele isn't one of those consumers. 

"I've never used it myself," he clarified. "I certainly have been in spaces where it has been used frequently. Never partook in it. That's just not my makeup. But I guess I have a more libertarian view of it. Adults should have the ability to make these choices for themselves, whether it's for their general pleasure — like, 'Hey, I just wanna chill' or 'I really need this because I'm in pain 24 hours a day.'"

What sorts of obstacles do you see in the way of legalization right now?

I think a lot of the old stigmas need to fall. The 1930s culture around this particular drug is certainly outdated. And so I think there's an opportunity now for a greater appreciation of what it is, and most especially, what it isn't. I think the data and the anecdotal evidence show that marijuana is not necessarily a gateway drug or a stepping stone to something far worse.

Would you say the 'gateway drug theory' is one of the top stigmas we need to tear down? 

Oh, absolutely. And it's something that the community as a whole needs to really work hard on to overcome. If you are a parent of a teenager or young kids — as you know, kids often as young as 8 or 9 get exposed to these things — you want to control that exposure. You want to control it with education, you want to control it with discipline. The community can help parents in that regard by, again, establishing what this drug is and isn't.

Certainly there should be appropriate age limitations placed on any drug, no matter how mild it is or how strong it is. There should be those types of limitations in order to overcome those stigmas, like the idea that if your kid uses pot, next thing you know, they're gonna be sitting in a back alley shooting up with cocaine or something.

You need to be smart about how you talk about the drug and what the images associated with this drug are. That goes a long way toward making things clear about what we can do as a community to not just police the drug but make sure that adults have access to it if they so choose.

Talking about it would be a big step for America after decades of avoiding the issue.

We all got caught up in that drug culture and it sort of crystallized as the Nancy Reagan era of 'just say no'. That defined the period, but more especially, it defined the identity of marijuana. And that created competing messages and images about what this drug is and what it isn't for those of us who knew some things about it from knowing friends and others who use marijuana. 

So now we're in an era where the marijuana issue is much more sophisticated. It is a business. It is also something that individuals have begun to personalize, where you have individuals coming out of the shadows and personalizing their use, whether it's a story related to their health or a story related to their recreation, or just a story related to their occasional use. I mean, this idea that if you smoke pot, you do it 24 hours a day every day is just another one of those images that's just not realistic and it's damaging.

Those in the cannabis community need to be smart and sophisticated about how they engage in the conversation and what images and messages they put out there, not to pull the wool over anybody's eyes, not to downplay the dangers. Because there are always dangers with any drug. An Aspirin can be dangerous if misused. So the conversation shouldn't let down the safeguards, you know, the accountability aspects of drug use.

But the conversation should also recognize that particular individuals will make choices, and if the choice is between crack and marijuana, give 'em a joint and call it a day. That's how I look at it.

What's your image of the cannabis consumer?

For me, my favorite comedian Katt Williams summed up marijuana in one of his monologues in which he says, "The danger of marijuana is that it makes you happy, sleepy and hungry." And I completely subscribe to that view, again, as someone who's never used the drug but has been around a lot of folks who have. They are the happiest, hungriest, sleepiest people on the planet.  

What would you like to see Republicans do with this issue at the federal level and what do you think is realistic for them to do given the political climate in America?

What I'd like to see them do is pay attention to Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah, one of the most conservative states in the union. He has for some time been an advocate for marijuana use. And if you can look up the wonderful dope puns that he put out in a statement [last month] in which he was just having a lot of fun while educating.

As he put it, 'It's high time for the US to seriously start delving into the weeds on marijuana.' That broke open the conversation from the federal side. Senator Hatch stood on the Senate floor talking about doing more research into the possible benefits of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids. 

And I think that is a very smart conversation to have. We are a country now fixated on opioid use. Marijuana's not to blame for that, but marijuana could certainly be a cure for that, to some degree. So I think those types of things are gonna be important next steps at the federal level, but will also go a long way to creating greater avenues for pushing back on some of the negative stereotypes between communities around the country at the state level. 

Did legalization come up a lot while you were chairman of the Republican National Committee? 

No, it did not. We had some members who were obviously supportive of it, but it was not something that the party felt it would take a position on.

My view as chairman was, leave to the states the stuff that states should handle. We shouldn't try dictating mores, attitudes, beliefs or whatever on this subject. I tried to stay away from issues that would become a distraction rather than furthering the conversation that we were trying to have to rebuild the party, rebrand it, move it in a different direction than it had been after significant losses. So that issue was not something that was brought up during my time.

But it did come up in 2016 when Republicans debated adding medical marijuana to the party's platform.

That is an outgrowth of the evolution of the subject among members and their changing attitudes toward the subject. There was a group of younger Republicans who wanted to propose that. It did not get passed, but I would not be surprised if that measure does get adopted to some degree or in some form at the 2020 convention.

Again, it reflects the growing trend-line in favor of medical marijuana use. As more and more families or individuals become afflicted with life-threatening diseases that cause mental or physical pain that interrupts their ability to heal, people are gonna have a very different view on this subject. And after all things are measured and accounted for, this drug will be no different than any other prescription that a patient would have.

And I think that more members of the party and party leadership are beginning to see it that way, which gets me back to why what Orrin Hatch is so important in terms of bringing it to the center floor and saying we need to pay attention to this. We need to look at it because we are ignoring a real benefit because we are fixating on stereotyped detriments. That that's an important transition for the discussion. 

Do you think we'll see an end to prohibition in our lifetime?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. This is not something that we're talking about in decades. We're talking about in years. Two years, three years, five years. The attitudes on these types of issues, because the country's facing bigger and more pressing issues, it's changing very quickly. Just think of where the country was on gay marriage and where it is now, and the timespan. That subject turned around in literally 18 months.

Marijuana legalization is something that I think has a trajectory to it that will only be accelerated as more and more people — more leaders in the cannabis community are seen having a respectful dialogue, presenting facts and science, acknowledging concerns that parents in particular have about young kids and their exposure to the drug — all of that in combination can be a positive in moving the conversation forward.

So if things continue to develop as they are now, with states legalizing marijuana one by one, which do you think will be the last to repeal prohibition? 

That's hard to say because you would fall into stereotypes about the states. I know a lot of people would think it'd be a state in the South. But it wouldn't surprise me if it was a western state or a northeastern state. Again, people's attitudes in various communities on these matters can be very surprising.

We have seen instances where — whether it's matters of race, matters of sexual identity and gender — states that you'd think would be the last to engage have been the first to start the conversation. So I think in terms of how this story plays out, it's not a question of who will be the last. It's more a question of, when will this no longer be an issue? 

And in terms of yourself, you said you've never used marijuana but you have been in the room when joints have gone around before. So if you were in a room and Katt Williams — your favorite comedian — was smoking a joint right next to you and passed it your way, what would you say?

I would say, 'Thank you, no.'

Sticking to your guns.

Yeah, I get high in other ways. And I don't mean that to sound the way it just did [laughs]. I don't need stimulants to enjoy life or to calm down or to relax. That's just me. But I've never judged anyone else who does use those things.

You know, I've cleaned up enough vomit in my day to know the impact that alcohol use can have. And I would be much quicker to tell a friend, 'Dude, this is your last drink and I'm taking the car keys' than someone who had a joint because invariably what would happen is they would go to sleep. I've been in that space. One guy's out, he's got the Cheetos with him on the couch. He's done for the evening. I don't have to worry about him. Another guy is taking his sixth drink, so I've gotta go take care of this brother.

I was that guy at parties who drank but not a lot. And I don't smoke pot, so I become sorta the policeman, taking people's car keys, giving them rides home at night, or telling them, 'Look, we're all crashing here tonight, no sweat. We'll make sure everybody has a big breakfast in the morning.' That's being socially responsible in my view.

But it would be the coolest thing in the world to meet Katt, like I said I'm a huge fan of his. But if he offered — or even if Snoop Dogg offered, who I'm an even bigger fan of — if they passed me one, I'd say, 'Thank you, no, but maybe we can still have fun.' 

That's be a story unto itself. I've read interviews with people who don't smoke, but when Snoop's around, that temptation comes up. So if you said no to Snoop Dogg, you might set a historical precedent.

Yeah, I think I could. I would accept that challenge. 

And that's sorta the flip-side to the issue of stigmas. Cannabis consumers need to respect people who choose not to smoke. That has to be part of the legalization conversation: don't judge people who do use, or people who don't. 

Absolutely, and that's an important point. Don't look down your nose at me because I won't take your joint; I'm certainly not looking down my nose at you because you have one. That accommodation is one of the early stages of the conversation that people need to have. I may stand there with my gin and tonic while you have your joint. I'm not gonna force my gin and tonic on you, don't put your joint on me. I may offer one to you, and you can say no. You can offer me a joint, and I can say no, and we can continue having a good time.

I think what happens though if you're in that environment and people feel that they're forced to, then that's unfair. It's unfair to the person who feels they're being forced to, but I think it's also unfair to the broader community because that is part of the stigma as well that makes it harder to overcome when stories are out there with people saying,  'Yeah, I just felt forced to because everybody there was pressuring me to do this.'

That's the concern parents have. If you can't respect an adult's 'no,' parents worry that you don't give a damn when a child says 'no' — that you'll put that pressure on their kids. And that's socially unacceptable. So finding the appropriate accommodations where I respect your 'no' and you respect my 'no' goes a long way to begin avoiding some of the problems that can come from people who have a stereotyped view of those who use the drug and the pressure they can bring on those who don't.

Yeah, that's a huge part of combating the view that legalization could put our kids at risk. Like you said, it's a relatively safer substance than others, but it's not a benign substance by any means.

It's not. It's not at all. Everybody has a different reaction to it. I joke about the 'happy, sleepy, hungry' thing but there's some folks who have a different reaction than that.

And all of that needs to be accounted for and needs to be respected. Because peer pressure is a genuine fear that parents have and that even adults have, especially those that have given up marijuana but don't want to give up their friends. 'You're my friend, we hang out. You smoke your joint, that's cool.' But folks need to move away from making others feel pressured to join in every time they hang out. You enjoy you, boo. You enjoy you. And I can enjoy you in that same space even though I'm not necessarily engaging in the same activity you're engaged in.

I think that, again, is one of those door-opening opportunities in the conversation. But we'll see how it plays out.


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