Does the government support legalization? Each week, Official Support profiles lawmakers that are publicly weighing in on weed.
Though marijuana doesn’t have too many outstanding conservative supporters on any level of government in the US, the issue doesn’t fall along party lines as cleanly as, say, marriage equality or abortion rights. The ideology that guides so many conservative viewpoints has eased against cannabis, reasoning that its medical and economic benefits outweigh the perceived moral hazard of legalizing a “drug.” While they may not support it in the huge proportions that other parties do, republicans support legalization indeed, and some are more outspoken than others.
Steve Katz is an elected member of New York State’s assembly. Not only is he a life-long republican, but he began his political career as a member of the Tea Party, a faction many liberals believe to be the ultra-conservative nucleus of modern politics. Katz contends that the Tea Party’s fundamental beliefs do, in fact, support the concept of legalization by way of support for all personal liberties. “The Tea Party, by and large, is nothing more than taxpayers who want to make sure that their money is being well spent,” says Katz. He cites a report in the conservative paper National Review that calls for sensible marijuana reform, which echoes a familiar and basic republican stance: “The legalization of marijuana in Colorado -- and the push for its legalization elsewhere -- is a sign that Americans still recognize some limitations on the reach of the state and its stable of nannies-in-arms.” This thought highlights a rare harmony in judgment between liberals and conservatives at a time when the parties are extremely polarized. Both can agree that the history of prohibition is troubling, that it’s a waste of tax dollars, that the War on Drugs is an overreach by our government, and that the only way to reverse it is for states to take the matter into their own hands. As sound as this parallel might be, Assemblyman Katz’s entry to the world of cannabis advocacy took a slightly less typical route.
In March of 2013, a New York State Trooper pulled Katz over for speeding and subsequently charged him for possessing a small amount of marijuana. The incident came less than a year after Katz voted against the state’s medical marijuana bill. Combating criticism of the apparent conflict between his vote and his personal lifestyle, Katz explains that he was simply implementing the will of his constituency. “I decided at that time that I would vote the way I believed the majority of my district wanted me to vote.” The conflict troubled him immediately. “The day after I did that I spoke to my wife and told her that I would never do that again, and that from then on, whatever the vote is, I’m hoping it’s what my constituents believe and how they want me to vote, but I will believe my conscience.”
Katz’s conscience led him to become an outspoken supporter of both medical and recreational legalization in New York. Following his arrest, Katz voted for the Compassionate Care Act as well as the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. Among the foremost reasons for his support, Katz aims to mitigate the injustice for families with children whose medical conditions could vastly improve with the use of cannabis. At a hearing on the Compassionate Care Act in Long Island last December, Katz was surprised by the number of parents who appeared, appealing for their children’s health. “Half of the people there were parents of children between two and ten who had neurological disorders that caused their children to have up to a hundred seizures a day,” says Katz. “Within 48 hours of the hearing, four families were moving to Colorado so that these kids could get Charlotte’s Web treatment. What does that say about New York?”
Beyond advancing sensible legalization legislation in his own state, Katz is vying for a leadership role in the National Cannabis Industry Association. He hopes to influence the path of the emerging cannabis industry and doesn’t subscribe to the tired old arguments held by some in his party. “It’s not like, when it’s legalized, the gates are going to spill open and all these people who never smoked are now going to flood our nation,” says Katz. “Legalization is going to turn law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who are currently criminals, of all things, into exactly what they were before, and that is normal, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens of our country.”
Assemblyman Katz serves as strong evidence that marijuana legalization makes sense from a national perspective and not just for the liberal-minded. If his enthusiasm manages to infect other republican politicians to support legalization on the basis of personal freedom and medicinal value, then the tide may turn even quicker than it already is.