The Drug Exception to the Second Amendment

Gun Rights

Jeronimo Yanez remembered smelling “the odor of burning marijuana” as he approached the white Oldsmobile sedan he had stopped near the intersection of Larpenteur Avenue and Fry Street in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. It was a little after 9 p.m. on a Wednesday in July 2016, and Yanez, who worked for the St. Anthony Police Department, had been assigned to patrol the streets of Lauderdale, a city just west of Falcon Heights.

The whiff of weed from the Oldsmobile, Yanez later said, figured in the threat he perceived from the car’s driver, a 32-year-old school cafeteria worker named Philando Castile. Yanez fatally shot Castile, who had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, a few seconds after learning that he had a gun in the car.

The marijuana that alarmed Yanez also figured in public comments about the shooting by Dana Loesch, a conservative radio host who at the time was a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association (NRA). Castile’s death seemed to be a clear case of an innocent man who was killed for exercising his Second Amendment rights. But the NRA, which initially called the incident “troubling,” never took a position on whether the shooting was justified. Several journalists thought they had an explanation for the NRA’s reticence when Loesch brought up Castile’s marijuana use, which made it illegal for him to own a gun, let alone carry one in public.

Loesch rejected that interpretation of her comments. But it seemed plausible in light of the NRA’s longstanding support for the federal bans on gun possession by illegal drug users and people convicted of drug-related felonies. The organization’s enthusiasm for enforcing those restrictions illustrates a blind spot shared by many right-leaning critics of gun control, whose concerns about overcriminalization, law enforcement abuses, and violations of civil liberties usually do not extend to the war on drugs.

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That inconsistency is the mirror image of attitudes among progressives, who readily recognize the injustice and racially disparate impact of drug laws while enthusiastically supporting gun laws with strikingly similar historical roots and contemporary consequences. In addition to overlooking their potential common ground, both sides tend to miss the perverse interaction between the twin crusades against guns and drugs, which combine to inflict double damage on people like Castile.

‘I Wasn’t Reaching for It’

“The reason I pulled you over,” Yanez told Castile, was that the car’s brake lights were not working properly. The top light was out, and the broken lens on the left light was covered with red tape.

Although Castile had no way of knowing it, that was not the real reason Yanez had pulled him over. The real reason was that Yanez thought Castile looked like a suspect in a recent armed robbery of a nearby convenience store. Surveillance video from the store showed two black men with handguns. One had shoulder-length dreadlocks, while the other had longer dreadlocks and was wearing glasses.

Castile likewise was a black man with dreadlocks and glasses. But at the time of the stop, Yanez told investigators from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) the next day, he could not recall whether the robbers had “corn rows or dreadlocks or straight hair.”

In that interview and in a radio call before he pulled the car over, Yanez mentioned Castile’s “wide-set nose,” a detail that had not been included in the description of either robbery suspect. Jeffrey Noble, a use-of-force expert consulted by local prosecutors, concluded that “no reasonable police officer would have believed that Mr. Castile matched the description of an armed robbery suspect.”

When Yanez asked Castile for his driver’s license and proof of insurance, a dashcam video showed, Castile handed over his insurance card. “Sir,” Castile then calmly told Yanez, “I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me.” Castile presumably was trying to avoid a surprise that might have alarmed Yanez. But his disclosure proved to be a fatal mistake.

“OK,” Yanez initially replied. “Don’t reach for it then.” Castile, who seems to have been responding to the officer’s request for his driver’s license by trying to retrieve his wallet, repeatedly assured Yanez that he was not reaching for the gun. So did Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was sitting in the front passenger seat. But Castile’s movements unnerved Yanez, who drew his gun and fired seven rounds at Castile.

“You just killed my boyfriend!” Reynolds exclaimed. “I wasn’t reaching for it,” a mortally wounded Castile said. It was one of the last things he said before he died.

The Smell of Homicidal Intent

“I thought he had the gun in his hand,” Yanez told the BCA investigators. “I thought I was gonna die.” But Noble found “the weight of the evidence supports a conclusion that the handgun was in Mr. Castile’s right front pants pocket at the time of the shooting.”

When Yanez was prosecuted for second-degree manslaughter, the jurors were more inclined to credit his account. “Some of us were saying that there was some recklessness there,” one juror said after Yanez was acquitted in June 2017, “but that didn’t stick because we didn’t know what escalated the situation: Was he really seeing a gun?”

According to Yanez, the marijuana he smelled colored his perception of Castile’s intentions. Castile’s passengers included Reynolds’ 4-year-old daughter, who was sitting in the back. “I thought…if he has the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the 5-year-old [sic] girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke,” Yanez recalled during the BCA interview, “then what care does he give about me?”

Whatever risk secondhand marijuana smoke might have posed to Reynolds’ daughter, it paled in comparison with the danger created by the seven bullets Yanez fired into the car. As Noble noted, Yanez admitted “the girl was in his line of fire.”

Yanez said the fact that “the inside of the vehicle smelled like marijuana” also made him wonder why Castile was carrying a gun. “I didn’t know if he was keeping it on him for protection…from a drug dealer or anything like that or any other people trying to rip him [off],” he said.

The implication seemed to be that Yanez thought Castile might be an armed and dangerous drug dealer. While “the odor of burnt marijuana would be cause to investigate,” Noble noted, “a reasonable police officer would not have believed that Mr. Castile was a drug dealer or that he was armed to protect his illicit activity.”

Yanez’s claims about the wild inferences he drew from the smell of marijuana may be what you would expect from a cop desperately trying to avoid prison. But it is not clear why anyone else would think Castile’s marijuana use was relevant in assessing whether Yanez’s use of deadly force was reasonable in the circumstances.

‘He Had Pot in the Car’

A day after the shooting, the NRA said “the reports from Minnesota are troubling and must be thoroughly investigated.” It promised “the NRA will have more to say once all the facts are known.”

A year passed before the NRA had more to say. The month after Yanez was acquitted, Loesch discussed the case on CNN as an NRA representative. “I think it’s absolutely awful,” she said. “It’s a terrible tragedy that could have been avoided.” But she was notably noncommittal on the wisdom and justice of the jury’s verdict.

“I don’t agree with every single decision that comes out from courtrooms of America,” Loesch said. “There are a lot of variables in this particular case, and there were a lot of things that I wish would have been done differently. Do I believe that Philando Castile deserved to lose his life over his [traffic] stop? I absolutely do not. I also think that this is why we have things like NRA Carry Guard, not only to reach out to the citizens to go over what to do during stops like this, but also to work with law enforcement so that they understand what citizens are experiencing when they go through stops like this.”

Loesch’s reference to NRA Carry Guard, a training and insurance program for permit holders, could be read as implying that Castile might still be alive if he had known “what to do during stops like this.” That was a common refrain from Yanez’s defenders, who said Castile, after disclosing that he had a concealed weapon, should have immediately placed his hands on the dashboard or steering wheel and awaited further instructions from Yanez.

But Yanez never asked Castile to do that. Nor did he tell Castile to stop moving or to keep his hands in plain sight. He did not even ask Castile where the gun was. Instead he told Castile not to pull the gun out, and Castile assured him that he wouldn’t. According to Reynolds, Castile thought he was doing what Yanez wanted by retrieving his driver’s license. Perhaps Castile could have been more proactive and more sensitive to Yanez’s nervousness. But the officer had a responsibility to control the situation, issue clear instructions, take routine precautions, and use deadly force only as a last resort. He failed abysmally on all four counts.

Loesch commented on the case again the following month. The context was a Twitter thread begun by Colion Noir, a lawyer and gun rights activist who had been sharply critical of Yanez. Noir, who at the time was the host of a show on the NRA’s now-defunct online video channel, was responding to a tweet by a woman named Laura Weatherspoon.

“How much the NRA cares about your legal right to own a gun is directly related to the color of your skin,” Weatherspoon wrote.

Noir, who is black, posted a link to that tweet with the comment, “Good God (forgive me father) enough w/ this lame argument.” When another Twitter user asked Weatherspoon for evidence to support her contention, she replied, “Philando Castile followed the safety rules he was taught and he was shot to death. NRA said nothing. They are usually quick to speak up.”

That is where Loesch chimed in, saying, “He was also in possession of a controlled substance and a firearm simultaneously, which is illegal. Stop lying.”

Police found a bag of marijuana in Castile’s car, and Reynolds testified that the two of them frequently smoked pot together. Even leaving aside the fact that Castile was “in possession of a controlled substance and a firearm simultaneously,” that recreational choice made it illegal for Castile to own a gun. Under federal law, it is a felony, currently punishable by up to 15 years in prison, for an “unlawful user” of a “controlled substance” to obtain or possess a firearm. That rule applies to all cannabis consumers, even if they live in states that have legalized marijuana.

The Washington Examiner and other news outlets interpreted Loesch’s comment as an explanation for why the NRA “did not defend” Castile. Loesch objected to that characterization on Twitter, saying she was only disputing Weatherspoon’s claim that Castile “followed the safety rules he was taught.” While Castile’s death was “awful and avoidable,” she wrote, it was “important” to note the marijuana, which meant his possession of a handgun was “not ‘lawful carry.'” On her radio show in 2018, Loesch brought up that detail again, saying “it didn’t help” when “it came out that he had pot in the car.”

Loesch, who was an NRA spokeswoman from 2017 to 2019, says her parting agreement with the organization precludes her from discussing its official positions or any statements she made on its behalf. But notwithstanding her comments about the “pot in the car,” she agrees that it had nothing to do with the legal question of whether a reasonable officer would have shot Castile. “The presence of marijuana is a separate issue,” she says.

Loesch does not think much of Yanez’s claim that the odor of marijuana made Castile seem more dangerous. “I’ve never known anybody who smokes pot to be violent,” she says. While “nobody knows what was in [Yanez’s] head and what he was thinking,” she says, “it just didn’t make sense as to why there would be that level of fear in that situation.”

Still, Loesch remained leery of questioning the verdict when I interviewed her in November 2022. The jurors acquitted Yanez “based on the evidence they were provided,” she says, and “I didn’t see any of that,” aside from the dashcam video, which was released after the trial.

Amy Hunter, the NRA’s current director of media relations, takes a similar stance. “We generally don’t comment on criminal jury verdicts,” she says.

Are Cannabis Consumers Dangerous?

The federal prohibition that Castile violated was first imposed by the Gun Control Act of 1968, which made it a crime for “an unlawful user” of “marihuana,” “any depressant or stimulant drug,” or any “narcotic drug” to “receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.” The current version of that rule forbids possession as well as receipt of firearms.

When Yanez pulled Castile over, violating that ban was punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022 increased the maximum penalty to 15 years. That law also created a new offense, “trafficking in firearms,” which it defined broadly enough to include marijuana users who buy guns. That crime is likewise punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Gun buyers who falsely deny marijuana use when they fill out the form required for firearm purchases from federally licensed dealers are guilty of yet another felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Despite those stiff penalties, the original rationale for banning gun ownership by illegal drug users was hazy, relying on the assumption that no one who consumes marijuana or other prohibited intoxicants can be trusted with a firearm. The Senate report on the legislation that would become the Gun Control Act, for instance, mentioned “narcotic addicts,” along with unsupervised “juveniles,” “mental defectives,” and “armed groups who would supplant duly constituted public authorities,” as a category of people “whose possession of firearms” is “contrary to the public interest.”

During a legislative debate in May 1968, Sen. Joseph Tydings (D–Md.) expressed the hope that Congress would “give the law-enforcement officers of our nation the assistance they need in controlling the unrestricted traffic in firearms into the hands of convicted felons, hoodlums, junkies, narcotic addicts, and other persons who should not possess them.” Tydings introduced into the record a column in which conservative commentator James J. Kilpatrick averred that “there is no question of the ease with which criminals, thrill-seeking juveniles, narcotics addicts, and mentally defective persons may acquire handguns.”

Tydings and Kilpatrick thus equated all “unlawful” drug users—the category covered by the Gun Control Act—with “junkies” and “narcotic addicts.” That sort of casual conflation was typical of drug policy discussions at the time, but it left much to be desired as a justification for restricting a constitutional right.

When Florida Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried filed a lawsuit challenging the federal ban on gun possession by medical marijuana users in 2022, the Biden administration likewise compared that policy to state gun laws aimed at “alcoholics” or “intoxicated” individuals. But unlike those laws, the ban for cannabis consumers applies even to moderate or occasional users who never handle guns while intoxicated.

The government’s lawyers also argued that Second Amendment rights are limited to “law-abiding citizens,” which cannabis consumers are not. They cited a “tradition of restricting the firearms rights of those who commit crimes.” But as Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted in a 2019 dissent as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, the relevant history does not suggest that any crime, or even any felony, will do. “Legislatures have the power to prohibit dangerous people from possessing guns,” Barrett wrote. “But that power extends only to people who are dangerous.”

Barrett disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that a mail fraud conviction justified the permanent loss of Second Amendment rights. But she noted that the 7th Circuit had previously said forbidding gun possession by illegal drug users was constitutional because “studies amply demonstrate the connection between chronic drug abuse and violent crime.”

In her lawsuit, Fried called that claim, at least as applied to cannabis consumers, “obsolete and without scientific support.” She noted a 2013 study commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy that found “marijuana use does not induce violent crime.” The Biden administration, in any event, did not assert a link between marijuana use and violence. It instead argued that the law Fried challenged was consistent with longstanding historical precedent.

The implausibility of that argument was compounded by the fact that the “crime” of consuming marijuana or other currently prohibited drugs did not exist when the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791. Nor did it exist when the 14th Amendment, which made the Second Amendment applicable to state and local governments, was ratified in 1868. During the 19th century, cannabis, opium, morphine, and cocaine were legally available over the counter and widely consumed as ingredients in patent medicines. It seems unlikely that Americans of that era would have thought eschewing such products should be a condition for exercising the rights protected by the Second Amendment and similar provisions of state constitutions.

Judge Allen Winsor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida nevertheless agreed with the Biden administration. In November 2022, he dismissed Fried’s lawsuit, ruling that the gun ban for marijuana users was “consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation”—the constitutional test that the Supreme Court has said gun control laws must pass. By way of historical precedent, Winsor noted colonial and state laws enacted in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries that prohibited people from either carrying or firing guns “while intoxicated.” The analogy was dubious, since those laws, which applied only when people were under the influence, did not categorically forbid drinkers to own guns.

Largely for that reason, Patrick Wyrick, a federal judge in Oklahoma, ruled in February that prohibiting cannabis consumers from owning guns violates the Second Amendment. While the earlier laws “took a scalpel to the right of armed self-defense,” he said, the current federal ban is more like “a sledgehammer.”

‘Lock Up the Bad People’

Although the Gun Control Act of 1968 nullified the Second Amendment rights of drug users and other broad categories of Americans, the NRA did not object. While some of the law’s provisions “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens,” NRA Executive Vice President Franklin Orth declared in the American Rifleman, “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”

Half a century later, in a 2021 essay, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre explained “what ‘enforcing the laws on the books'”—as the organization frequently urges the government to do, rather than enact new restrictions on firearms—”would actually look like.” LaPierre noted that “it is a federal felony,” then punishable by up to 10 years in prison, “for a convicted felon to buy, receive, transport or possess any firearm or ammunition,” and “the same penalties apply to known drug users.”

The NRA has long supported more vigorous enforcement of the federal ban on gun ownership by “prohibited persons,” including drug users and people convicted of drug felonies. As a model, the organization has frequently cited Project Exile, a program that sends gun possession cases to federal court, where defendants typically face stiffer penalties than they would in state court. “By prosecuting them, they prevent the drug dealer, the gang member, and the felon from committing the next crime,” LaPierre told The Wall Street Journal in 2008. “Leave the good people alone and lock up the bad people.”

In a speech at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference, LaPierre bragged that “the National Rifle Association originated the National Instant Check System” for gun purchases, which was established by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. He declared that “no one on the prohibited persons list should ever have access to a firearm.”

What does that position say about the NRA’s understanding of the Second Amendment? If trivial offenses such as pot smoking are enough to strip someone of the constitutional right to armed self-defense, that right is subject to legislators’ whims, a proposition that the NRA passionately rejects in other contexts.

When it comes to other restrictions on the right to arms, the NRA does not take the position that “the law is the law” and leave it at that. To the contrary, the NRA criticizes gun regulations that it believes unjustifiably impinge on that right, such as “assault weapon” bans, limits on magazine capacity, “red flag” laws, and restrictive carry-permit policies.

In 2014, the NRA championed the cause of Shaneen Allen, a Pennsylvania carry-permit holder who did not realize it was illegal for her to drive through New Jersey with her handgun. During a routine traffic stop, the NRA noted, Allen “dutifully informed the police officer she had her pistol in the car.” She was then arrested and charged with illegal gun possession, which could have sent her to prison for several years. The NRA called that situation “a mockery of justice.”

Allen spent 48 days in jail and lost her job but ultimately avoided a prison sentence by enrolling in a pretrial intervention program. In 2015, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who was about to seek his party’s presidential nomination, won the NRA’s applause by pardoning Allen.

The NRA’s support for Allen, an African-American mother of two from Philadelphia, belied the notion that it was only interested in defending the Second Amendment rights of white people. At the same time, it showed that the organization does not always favor “enforcing the laws on the books.”

‘Jack-Booted Government Thugs’

LaPierre’s enthusiasm for waging the war on drugs and enforcing the gun restrictions it has spawned is hard to reconcile with his avowed concern for civil liberties. In that 2018 speech, he warned that overweening government threatens due process, privacy, “personal liberty,” and freedom of speech. “Some people out there think the NRA should just stick to its Second Amendment agenda and not talk about all of our freedoms,” he said. “But real freedom requires protection of all of our rights. And a Second Amendment isn’t worth its own words in a country where all of our other individual freedoms are destroyed.”

Because it dictates which psychoactive substances people may consume, drug prohibition is a direct assault on “personal liberty.” It has steadily eroded privacy by inviting the Supreme Court to whittle away at the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. It is also the main justification for civil asset forfeiture, a system of legalized larceny that makes a mockery of due process. So much for defending “all of our freedoms.”

In a 1995 letter to NRA members, LaPierre warned that the federal “assault weapon” ban enacted the previous year “gives jack-booted government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” The same could be said of the drug laws that LaPierre thinks should be vigorously enforced. Criminalizing possession of certain psychoactive substances, like criminalizing possession of certain firearms or firearm accessories, invites armed agents of the state to “break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.”

When Louisville police killed 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in 2020, for example, drug prohibition was the pretext for invading her home in the middle of the night. She died in a hail of bullets because her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired a shot at the cops, whom he mistook for criminal intruders. Walker, who was exercising what the Supreme Court has called the “core” Second Amendment right to “use arms in defense of hearth and home,” initially faced an attempted murder charge, which prosecutors dropped two months later.

In a video on his YouTube channel, Noir said the deadly raid “should terrify every gun owner.” As in the Castile case, critics faulted the NRA for not speaking up.

The NRA’s selective concern about the dangers posed by “jack-booted government thugs” reflects a broader tendency among conservatives. President Ronald Reagan was a vocal supporter of gun rights during his two terms in office, when he was equally vocal in supporting the war on drugs.

Addressing the NRA’s national members banquet in 1983, Reagan hailed the defeat of a 1982 California ballot initiative that would have required registration of handguns. Had it passed, he said, police would have been “so busy arresting handgun owners that they would be unable to protect the people against criminals.” He acknowledged the “nasty truth” that “those who seek to inflict harm are not fazed by gun control laws” and called for “reform” of “firearms laws which needlessly interfere with the rights of legitimate gun owners.”

In the same speech, Reagan touted his determination to “cripple the drug pushers” through mandatory minimum sentences, “firm and speedy application of penalties,” and abolition of federal parole. And although he said “we will never disarm any American who seeks to protect his or her family from fear and harm,” that was plainly not true, since the drug laws he was keen to enforce underlie a policy that denies millions of Americans the right to armed self-defense even when they have no history of violence.

Reagan saw no contradiction between those two positions, and the same is true of many Republican politicians today. Legislators who receive high grades from the NRA, signifying opposition to gun control, are often enthusiastic about drug control. Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.), for example, is an NRA member with an “A” rating from the organization. He is also one of the most gung-ho drug warriors in Washington, opposing even modest sentencing reforms. And Cotton is so committed to the ban on gun possession by “prohibited persons” that he has proposed a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for violating it.

‘It Would Be Unjust’

Even when it comes to the medical use of marijuana, which 37 states allow and many conservatives have endorsed, the NRA has been slow to defend the Second Amendment rights of people who defy the federal prohibition. In 2014, the Chicago Tribune asked Todd Vandermyde, an NRA lobbyist in Illinois, about a proposed state regulation that would have barred medical marijuana patients from owning guns. Vandermyde said the rule “presents a novel legal conundrum,” which was not really true, given the longstanding federal ban. Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, was bolder. “I don’t think it’s constitutional,” he said.

In a 2018 story about Louisiana’s medical marijuana program, the New Orleans Times-Picayune noted that the NRA “has not taken a public stance” against the federal gun ban for patients who use cannabis in compliance with state law. Hunter, the NRA spokeswoman, confirms that the organization has not “directly supported” the Florida lawsuit or any other legal challenge to that restriction. But she adds that “it would be unjust for the federal government to punish or deprive a person of a constitutional right for using a substance their state government has, as a matter of public policy, legalized.”

That stance suggests the NRA might be moving beyond the anti-drug orthodoxy that LaPierre parroted for decades. It aligns the organization with the position that conservative activist David Keene, who was the NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013, took in 2018, when he defended the gun rights of medical marijuana patients in a Washington Times op-ed piece. “The refusal of the federal government to accede to the judgment of the states on the issue,” Keene wrote, “has created problems for tens or even hundreds of thousands of gun owners,” who “are being forced to either trade their Second Amendment rights for a chance to live pain-free or risk prosecution and imprisonment.”

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, agrees with Keene. He “stands for protecting Floridians’ constitutional rights—including 2nd Amendment rights,” his office said after Fried, a Democrat, filed her lawsuit. “Floridians should not be deprived of a constitutional right for using a medication lawfully.”

Several Republican members of Congress have taken a similar position. In January 2023, Rep. Alex Mooney (R–W.Va.) reintroduced a bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Brian Mast (R–Fla.) and Thomas Massie (R–Ky.), that would eliminate the gun ban for state-legal medical marijuana users.

Loesch would go further. Although she emphasizes that people should not handle guns when they are intoxicated, she does not think Americans should lose their Second Amendment rights merely because they use marijuana, whether for medical or recreational purposes. “I don’t think that’s one of the things that should be able to cancel out a natural right,” she says.

That drastic step, Loesch thinks, should require evidence, such as a history of violent felonies, that someone’s possession of firearms poses a serious threat to public safety. “I hesitate in giving government any kind of justification, beyond basic safety against very dangerous individuals,” for taking away people’s Second Amendment rights, she says. She adds that “I 100 percent agree” with Barrett’s 2019 dissent on that point.

Loesch’s stance is what you might expect from the author of Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America. But she concedes that defenders of the Second Amendment typically do not pay much attention to the interaction between gun control and drug control. “Conservatives might be worried about muddying the argument,” she says. One reason “conservatives are very nervous to talk about the issue of drugs and firearms,” she suggests, is that “usually what you hear from the left is, ‘My gosh, you want the drug dealer down the road to be able to have their guns and go out and terrorize neighborhoods.'”

Republicans and Pot Prohibition

Republicans are much less inclined to support drug policy reform than Democrats. According to a 2022 Gallup survey, 51 percent of Republicans think marijuana should be legal, compared to 81 percent of Democrats. Partisan differences on gun control are even starker: While 86 percent of Democrats favor stricter regulation, just 27 percent of Republicans do.

Although Democrats overwhelmingly see the folly of banning marijuana, they are much more optimistic about the government’s ability to protect public safety by limiting gun sales and possession. Republicans, by contrast, are far more likely to support marijuana prohibition than they are to support new gun restrictions.

It nevertheless seems clear that the ongoing de-escalation of the war on weed, including recreational legalization in more than 20 states so far, has made an impression on Republicans, who are more than twice as likely to support legalization as they were at the turn of the century. Even among self-described conservatives, nearly half want to end pot prohibition, according to Gallup. Support for legalization rises to 59 percent among conservatives in their 30s or 40s, then rises to 65 percent among conservatives in their teens or 20s.

This is the context in which prominent conservatives such as Keene, DeSantis, and Mooney publicly criticized the federal ban on gun possession by cannabis consumers. It is also the context in which the NRA, after decades of silence on the issue, was willing to agree with them. Such objections, while modest in themselves, could open the door to a broader recognition that drug control, like gun control, is a menace to civil liberties.

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