In a general sense, it seems that proponents of marijuana legalization tend to come from left-wing political parties, or at least, from the left-leaning factions within right-wing parties.

I am thinking mostly about the Conservative party in the UK, as well as the Republican party in the US - although I acknowledge that there do exist proponents of legalization within these parties, it seems a lot rarer than in, say, the Labour party or Democrats respectively - and certainly nowhere near being official party policy.

Is this generalization accurate? If so, why? Doesn’t legalization and regulation of the drug tally with support for a laissez-faire approach to governance, as well as a capitalist opportunity?

I am not asking for opinions, but an objective explanation of why right-wing policy tends to lean away from supporting legalization despite the policy exhibiting features that would seem to appeal to the right-wing values of capitalism and the abstention of governments from interference in the free market, etc.


11 Answers 11


Much of politics doesn't fit into the traditional left-right one-dimensional political spectrum. Politics is multi-dimensional.

Marijuana legalisation (and the legalisation/regulation of other drugs) is a socially liberal as well as economically liberal idea.

While being economically liberal, many people on the Right wing are not socially liberal.

Rightly or wrongly they concern themselves with what people do to themselves and with each other.

They are socially conservative, socially illiberal, authoritarian or religious. They might see it as their duty to prevent people from doing harm to themselves, their families and society through the use of currently illicit drugs. It is moral, in their view, to prevent the use of such drugs, regardless of the purported economic benefits of liberalisation.

The UK's Conservative Party membership comprises a variety of political outlooks that include social liberalism and social conservatism.

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    "Rightly or wrongly they concern themselves with what people do to themselves and with each other." this is a characteristic of both ends of the spectrum in the US. Generally speaking the right want people to act ethically, but they want less laws. Of course the left wants people to act ethically, but they have no problem with creating laws to force them. Saying that the right is somehow more authoritarian than the left isn't accurate, at least in the US.
    – user28636
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 4:30
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    @jgn 1. I didn't and won't claim the Right is more authoritarian than the Left. 2. I said "many" on the Right - "many" doesn't mean "all". 3. If a political spectrum has at least two dimensions or axes, e.g. social illiberalism to liberalism and economic illiberalism to liberalism, one can be economically on the right and socially left, centrist or right. Likewise, one can be economically on the left and socially left, centrist or right.
    – Lag
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 9:15
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    @jgn The subject of those sentences is "the many people on the Right wing [who] are not socially liberal." I will think about how to make them clearer, but they are not literally incorrect and certainly I made no claim that "the right is somehow more authoritarian". And the last sentence is explicit that the UK's major right-wing party, the one mentioned by the question, contains socially liberal people, so I'm puzzled by your complaint.
    – Lag
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 10:33
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    @jgn both sides have no problem creating laws to enforce people to behave how they want. For conservatives, see drug laws, prohibiting same sex marriage, and restricting or banning abortion as examples. The two parties legislate different sorts of things but both are in favor of the government imposing their will, and both are in favor of the government staying out of things they want to do.
    – Kat
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 17:39
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    Or, the opposition to the legalization of marijuana stems from a prediction that its increased use will lead to an increased dependency on the growing social welfare programs that those on the right object to in principle. If you already object to the government subsidizing bad choices, and are told to accept more people making bad choices, you're going to reject that too. Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 15:35

When asking this question about parties, and why they oppose legalization, there are two potential aspects to "why": reasons for the policy as an end in itself, and reasons for the policy as a means to attaining and retaining power. My answer focuses on the latter, as in my experience there does not seem to be a right-wing consensus that drugs (and especially not marijuana) should be illegal. I think my view here is somewhat in line with your observation that drug prohibition is contrary to what you view as conservative values about the role of government.

Groups that hold power, and especially right-wing parties, thrive on rules with harsh penalties that forbid things large portions of the population are doing, that can be selectively enforced against members of groups they want to keep disempowered, including even members of "their own" who step out of line. It facilitates disenfranchisement of groups likely to vote (or, in a non-democratic system, otherwise organize and rise up) against them. Further, the ability to get by with breaking the rule as long as you're one of the "in group" builds feelings of loyalty and unity.

This does not mean every person who supports or identifies with a right-wing party shares the above view or motivation. Many don't actually support drug prohibition, or if they do, subscribe to one or more of the narratives politicians use in justifying it, such as concern that a culture of tolerance of drugs will lead to their children becoming drug addicts or that drug users are a threat to their lives or property.

While my view here is not based on this one account (rather built on a multitude of experiences and assimilation of sources over decades) and I didn't have this in mind when first writing the answer, John Ehrlichman's account of the origins of the drug war supports what I claim:

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people," former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper's writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday.

"You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities," Ehrlichman said. "We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

Source: https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-richard-nixon-drug-war-blacks-hippie/index.html

There's room for debate as to how biased this account is, but it matches what groups who claim to have been targeted have been saying since long before the Ehrlichman interview was published.

Regarding the general principle of selective enforcement of laws widely broken (including drug laws) against groups of people more likely to vote against right-wing parties, the ACLU of NJ has a report from 2015, and it's widely accepted that this kind of disparity exists. Moreover I don't think it's under serious doubt that enforcement tends to prevent (via incarceration) voting against right-wing candidates and tends to break down social and economic stability needed for affected groups to organize politically, or that their doing so wouldn't shift power away from the right.

Outside of the US, Duterte's Philippine Drug War seems to be a similar phenomenon of right-wing use of drug prohibition as a weapon against political opponents.

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    Please add references for 1) Prison industrial complex lobbying for increased drug penalties, 2) Police unions lobbying for more drug laws for job security, 3) CIA black ops used to generate revenue off books that would not be possible with commodity priced drugs. I would like to award this answer bonus points!
    – Chloe
    Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 2:59
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    (A) This highly condemning "confession" from John Ehrlichman is from 2016, and he has a history of painting the entire Nixon administration as badly as he possibly can, because Nixon denied pardoning John Ehrlichman for felonies Ehrlichman participated in (with/for Nixon), resulting in Ehrlichman going to prison for 18 months and permanently losing his law license and torpedoing his political career. So basically it's hearsay, albeit from an inside man, but a very bitter insideman with an axe he's been grinding as much as he can for many decades.
    – Jamin Grey
    Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 3:17
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    (B) Two of the primary laws passed - the "Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970" and the "Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984" - were very bipartisan, and were more heavily supported by Democrats. Yes, they were signed in by Republican presidents (Nixon and Reagan), but passed by Democrat dominated House and Senates, with overwhelming Democrat support (Between 70% and 85% Democrat support, depending on the law, and depending on it being the House or Senate vote for that law - and most of the non-supportive Democrat votes were Abstaining rather than Nays).
    – Jamin Grey
    Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 3:18
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    @JaminGrey: Not to say that there aren't Democrats who favor such practices too (globally speaking, the Democratic party is a very right-wing party, just not so much as the Republican party), but your comments paint a picture of the same type of power dynamic described in my answer, but at a political level. These were votes under devastating Republican presidencies where the narrative was controlled by Republicans who wanted to wage a drug war, and where Democrats who voted against it would have that used against them. See: abstaining rather than nays. Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 4:40
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    @DrMcCleod: The intention of our autocratic and authoritarian politicians is not to cause harm to hippies and blacks, but to disenfranchise them. Even the most clever despots find it difficult to exploit a demographic that is mostly useless and nearly dead. Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 22:39

I hate to say this, but incarceration is profitable, and at least in America the political class is plainly for sale:

The largest private prison corporations, Core Civic and GEO Group, collectively manage over half of the private prison contracts in the United States with combined revenues of $3.5 billion as of 2015.[...]

In 2017 private prison stocks for Core Civic and GEO Group more than doubled after the Department of Justice, under Sessions’ leadership, announced that it would be maintaining contracts with for-profit prisons. While the firms’ stock prices have since declined, in early 2018 they were substantially higher than their 2016 low.

Private prison companies have contributed millions to President Trump’s campaign and associated super PACs. Moreover, at least one prison company appears to be acting in the personal financial interest of President Trump. GEO Group changed the location of its annual meeting from a resort in Boca Raton, Florida to the Trump National Doral Golf Club in Miami. This club is reported to be the “single biggest contributor to Trump’s cash flow.”1

As I said elsewhere the particular world view of people usually aligns well with their particular interests. The right-wing profiteers of the inhumane incarceration rate in the United States of course think that strict laws and strict enforcement lead to a better society. (Only sticklers would point out that this should be applied equally to tax evasion and insider trading.)

The war on drugs supplies the law enforcement and prison system with a stream of felons and inmates that's never-ending because drugs have been inextricably intertwined with the human existence from the beginning of times, and will ever be. Ending the criminalization of drugs faces the same difficulties as global disarmament: There is a political-industrial-cultural complex profiting from it, and the public is easily convinced of simple "solutions".

  • When you say the political class is for sale, do you mean specifically the subclass consisting of those on the right of the traditional left/right viewpoint?
    – CDJB
    Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 14:39
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    @CDJB I didn't qualify for a reason. The larger the allowed donations the more it turns into bribery. Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 14:48
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    Indeed. In Massachusetts where I live, the police and prison establishments fought tooth and nail against cannabis legalization. Decriminalizing drugs puts cops, court people and corrections people out of work. They don't like being put out of work. And right-wing parties,as mentioned in the question, generally have an authoritarian streak to them, so they support employment in the law-enforcement sector of the government.
    – O. Jones
    Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 21:33
  • This is not a factor on the UK Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 16:43
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    @IanRingrose True, in the UK there is only stupidity and malevolence left to explain it. Not sure what I prefer. Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 16:49

From the 2016 (US) Republican Platform, page 40:

Combatting Drug Abuse

The progress made over the last three decades against drug abuse is eroding, whether for cultural reasons or for lack of national leadership. In many jurisdictions, marijuana is virtually legalized despite its illegality under federal law. At the other end of the drug spectrum, heroin use nearly doubled from 2003 to 2013, while deaths from heroin have quadrupled. All this highlights the continuing conflicts and contradictions in public attitudes and public policy toward illegal substances. Congress and a new administration should consider the long-range implications of these trends for public health and safety and prepare to deal with the problematic consequences.

The platform puts marijuana under "drug abuse", albeit acknowledging it is on "the other end of the drug spectrum" as heroin. The last line emphasizes a conservative view about the long-term implications of drug use, possibly alluding to the long-term effects of marijuana usage.

  • This addresses how they sell the position, not why they hold it, and is specific to the Republican party rather than to right-wing parties in general. Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 5:31
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    Yes, this is the official position, or as you call it "how they sell the position", which I think at least partially satisfies "why". There may be other unstated reasons which are not covered by this answer. This answer is not exhaustive by any means, including in terms of other countries besides the US.
    – qwr
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 6:30
  • This quote is a remarkable example of incredible vagueness. How to write a paragraph while saying absolutely nothing. Perhaps that signifies there is internal disagreement on an actual policy position?
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 10:55

In terms of the Republican party, it's generally not something that's a major plank issue. Presently, many of the more moderate members are far more likely to support it, especially those of the Libertarian/Classic Liberal wing of the party. The chief reasons they don't press the matter in intraparty politics as those of the libertarian persuasion are trying to focus on the limited government reform platforms and away from the the legalize cannabis issue as one of the stigmas against libertarians is that they are "right wing potheads". As for the rest of the party's wing, there are either no real support one way or the other and the remaining who do want the ban already have it... it's generally easier to support a vote for "No" on an issue than "Yes" in any issue.

Personally, one of the best arguments I have heard is that current tests for usage are unable to determine how much THC is presently active in your system such that it is impairing your judgement (presently, the tests only look for it's presences in your system at all, since whether or not you are currently "high as a kite" really doesn't matter when it's use is illegal. Evidence that you used it at all is good enough for the guilty verdict... Knowing if you are driving under the influence requires knowing if what's in your system is lingering from when you smoked three days ago or is presently impairing your judgement.). Another argument is that the difference in chemical make up for medical cannabis and recreation cannabis can have different effects on the body, but this one is something I haven't verified by any objective measure.

I cannot offer any rationals for the Conservative Party in the UK as I don't follow UK politics closely enough to know the debate to speak to the platforms.

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    Can you cite any sources about the libertarian "right wing potheads" stigma?
    – qwr
    Commented Dec 6, 2019 at 23:28
  • @qwr: It's a widespread stereotype, whose "citations" are usually from libertarians trying to dispel it. E.g., reason.com.
    – dan04
    Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 16:18
  • The US Republican party is not a true right-wing party. They support some personal freedoms - for example they do not oppose divorce and many famous Republican politicians are themselves divorced! (Such as President Trump.) A true right-wing party would properly oppose personal freedoms such as sexual deviances which are widely embraced by Republicans and Democrats a like (Democrats more so). Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 1:11
  • @notmySOaccount: Right/Left politics tend to mean different things in different nations. The U.S. was created by a lot of Classical Liberals and at a point in time when Classical Liberalism was new enough that it was just called "liberalism". Both parties have some basic liberal core beliefs as major philosophical planks (if not in name, as the US will tend to use "The Left" and "Liberals" to mean the same thing). You'll find that both parties moderate base tend to find similar liberal philosophic cores to be acceptable. The extremes of the parties tend to be louder about differences
    – hszmv
    Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 13:54

Somewhat oversimplified explanation: In many circles (especially right-wing ones) there was limited access to information concerning differences in harm level between different psychoactive substances. So the approach was simple - it's all terribly harmful and should be enforced harshly.

(I highly suspect this is mostly due to a lack of detailed information because I've seen multiple conservatives, who after seeing data concerning actual harm level in comparison to alcohol, changed their views. In the era of the internet, multiple right-wing views are spreading quite well, while on this specific issue people on the right-wing are grudgingly willing to accept an approach more associated with left-wing, so I really think it's an information access issue)

Setting this aside:

  • The issue is rather controversial in right-wing circles, as for classical liberals (libertarians) drugs are a perfect example of individual freedom, while for the more religious right, they are more some demonic-like force incarnated in a chemical compound (yes, a bit exaggerated however on this issue one can easily get a forum flame war within right-wingers)
  • Having high openness is statistically speaking a predictor of being on the left-wing AND of being more willing to experiment with at least some drugs, so I'd say it's not something really matching people on the right.
  • Generally, right-wingers don't like ideas of any grey zones as undermining rule of law (it's sort of illegal, but actually not likely to be prosecuted) and trying to lower sentencing when already existing regulations are failing to discipline people - a huge part of the legalisation path in multiple countries sort of looked as improperly as possible for right-wingers, irrespective of the actual harm of the substance.
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    Additionally I find many fiscal conservatives would have a more libertarian view of cannabis save for they stereotype cannabis users as being a larger liberal public financial burden. Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 23:27
  • Your first bullet is a good example of the difference between conservative (what you describe as "classical liberal") vs. right-wing. Most people who call themselves conservatives are not classical liberals - they are right-wing. That's what results in the distinction you clearly make. Hence I no longer call myself a conservative, but right-wing. Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 0:59
  • Re "high openness": Good ol' boy culture leans right but is very open to two of the most, (perhaps that should be the most), dangerous drugs classes, alcohol and tobacco. C&W music includes thousands of booze ballads.
    – agc
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 23:47

The core policy of right wing parties is to promote the interests of the wealthy - that's what defines them as right wing. However, in most societies, a majority of the population are not wealthy (depending on how you cut it) and thus unlikely to give wholehearted support to such policies.

One strategy to deal with this is to divide the population into opposing groups and set one's party up as the protector and voice for some of those groups against a threatening "other". That "other" can be defined in various ways: racially, nationally, by lifestyle, etc.

Drug use is a lifestyle choice that can be used to isolate such a group (in the same way that gay people were isolated and attacked for much of the 20th century).

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    In the US, the wealthy are more likely to support marijuana legalization. Thus any party that advocates for the wealthy would support marijuana legalization. Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 0:58
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    @notmySOaccount, Think of the GOP like a high level divorce attorney who works only for the wealthy, yet stands to profit more when husbands and wives quarrel. Such a lawyer is all for the wealthy as a class, but may not always have their best interests at heart when it comes to particular wealthy individuals or families.
    – agc
    Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 0:01

The premise is false. In the United States, at least, marijuana prohibition was a mainstream position favored by both major political parties for decades. The party most noted in American politics for favoring marijuana legalization during those decades was the Libertarian party, a right-wing party.

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    The US Libertarian Party is conservative, not right-wing. Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 0:55
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    @notmySOaccount Since when are those different? Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 14:01
  • @notmySOaccount I'd be inclined to say they/re both, and probably there are also many people who'd say they're "right-wing" but not "conservative" (due to the common habit in western political discourse of framing "conservative" as the opposite of "liberal", which in turn leads some people to treat the word "conservative" as if it simply means "illiberal"). But to call them "conservative" but not "right-wing" is curious to me; I'm not sure I can reverse-engineer the definitions being used to justify that labelling.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 15:28

At least in the United States Republican party, I think it would be more fair to say that there is a diversity of opinion. At National Review, for example, which is widely considered a flagship of the conservative movement in the US, we have an anti-legalization article, but also more-or-less pro-legalization articles here and here.


Social conservatism focuses on preventing social behaviours that cause harm. Divorce, for example is taken to harm children. Drug use harms the individual as well as those who are socially close to that individual. Since marijuana is now proven to be a causative agent in mental illness* it is entirely within the traditional domain of social conservatism to keep it illegal.

*It is now incontrovertible that heavy use of cannabis increases the risk of psychosis. There is a dose-response relationship and high potency preparations and synthetic cannabinoids carry the greatest risk. It would be wise to await the outcome of the different models of legalisation that are being introduced in North America, before deciding whether or not to follow suit.

Colizzi M, Murray R. Cannabis and psychosis: what do we know and what should we do?. Br J Psychiatry. 2018;212(4):195-196. doi:10.1192/bjp.2018.1

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    Please follow ref No 5 in the paper you linked to and find that the opinion piece you cite does not accurately cite its source! In the stats department of the argument! And even the source paper needs contextualisation towards real-risk and baseline. It is low, was low, and will remain low. True: either nasty pure THC, or early onset heavy use are not nice that much, but in almost any perspective the 'harm' argument either for individual, surroundings or solidaric society (as if, in any conservative argument) for this is utter bull. Commented Dec 7, 2019 at 22:40
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    @LаngLаngС Thankyou for your opinions, if you have any facts to support them then feel free to add them.
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Dec 8, 2019 at 12:37
  • "Social conservatism focuses on preventing social behaviours that cause harm" I think you're confusing social conservatism with socialism. Social conservatism does not aim to reduce harm, it aims to reduce sexual liberty and moral deviance. Harm reduction would involve expanding healthcare and education systems, which social conservatives oppose - I can't imagine a social conservative who wants to reduce harm for its own sake, I certainly don't. Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 1:29
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    @notmySOaccount You are right that social conservatives oppose licentiousness but that is because they believe that such behaviour is harmful. Also, the idea that SCs would not be interested in schools and hospitals is clearly false since the earliest examples of such institutions were provided by religious organisations rather than the state.
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 7:44
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    Facts are needed for your link: incidence/prevalence for psychotic complications are very low, if 100% people ingest hemp, >99% will be unharmed (unless facing the law), causal link is not "proven", neither genetic nor any biological thing trumps diathesis-stress: vulnerable people increase their risk, when overdoing, and they are few. That your opinion piece mixes real hemp (even as hi-potency hybrids) with synthetic research chemicals discredits the whole thing. Social stressors are a far greater risk modulator, which increase with policies informed by manipulative opinions like linked. Commented Dec 9, 2019 at 9:11

For the same reason "left-wing" parties generally oppose the legalization of guns.

"Right-wing" people typically believe in the individual freedom to defend yourself from others, but they do not believe in the freedom to harm yourself. For "Left-wing" people, it's the other way around.

Both tend to take opposite sides on which issues require a security / safety to be prioritized over individual freedom, because their brains are wired to require freedom and security in different areas.

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