What’s Up With Orrin Hatch’s Marijuana Conversion?

What’s Up With Orrin Hatch’s Marijuana Conversion?

From opponent to ally. Behind the Utah Republican’s seemingly bizarre marijuana conversion.

Orrin Hatch is the Republican Party’s senior statesman in the U.S. Senate. At a venerable 83 years old, Hatch has been in the Senate since 1977. His lawmaking career has spanned almost half of his long life. It began before more than half of Americans living today were born, and it’s been spent in the true and faithful pursuit of core conservative values.

Before his marijuana conversion, Hatch was an anti-marijuana hardliner

As befits someone who came to power when the Republican Party was applying Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy, for most of his four decades on Capitol Hill, Hatch has also been a staunch supporter of the drug war, and all its racist, harmful, authoritarian multitudes.

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After California voters approved medical marijuana way back in 1996, Hatch, as a key member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was quick to deploy Bill Clinton’s own drug dogs as interference. Marijuana is “more cancer-causing than tobacco,” he said at the time. It’s no accident it took many more years before widespread access to cannabis was a reality.

But now it appears Sen. Hatch is singing a new tune on marijuana.

Whistling a new tune on marijuana

What can we say, except that the age of 83 is apparently a fine time for a reinvention. Orrin Hatch, staunch Republican. Orrin Hatch, Trump guy. And Orrin Hatch, voice for medical marijuana in the U.S. Senate.

In September, Hatch introduced legislation in the Senate that would lift current draconian restrictions on medical-cannabis research — and used no less than eight exhausted puns in the accompanying press release. He is quite the humorist, said his spokesman — who in all likelihood wrote the release — in an interview with CNN (though the lighthearted tone taken with a serious issue led some cannabis advocates to question his sincerity).

And last month, Hatch managed to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his old Senate colleague, to admit that there should be more than one single source of government-approved marijuana for medical research.

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What has happened? What snapped in Hatch’s brain? There are two ways of looking at this metamorphosis: As a cynic, or as a pragmatist.

A cynic's take on this marijuana conversion

The cynic would step back, look at the record — and note Hatch’s continued opposition to legalized recreational marijuana — and declare that Hatch is merely evolving with the times. Utah is close to legalizing medical marijuana, and may have done so already were it not for classic obstructionism at the state legislature. A majority of Republicans, and 61 percent of all Americans, support marijuana legalization. And support for medical marijuana is an overwhelming 83 percent. Any halfwit can look at the polls, realize how the tides have turned, and adapt accordingly.

What a courageous opportunist — and if he’s serious about this, why isn’t he out there criticizing Jeff Sessions from the right, not just on the Justice Department’s obstructing cannabis research, but on Sessions’ scaremongering campaign against state-legal cannabis, a clear-cut violation of conservative principles?

That would be helpful. (Most marijuana-friendly mainstream Democrats deserve no laurels, either: They, too, waited until public opinion had safely swung in weed’s favor before making the jump.)

But what about a pragmatic view?

Now, enter the pragmatist, whose memory is too short to bear grudges and who is happy to see any progress from any corner, no matter how slight. The pragmatist will say that anyone holding pro-legalization views in the 1990s was a wild and crazy outlier, a ranting hermit fresh in from 40 days in the desert — and that Hatch has had twenty years to listen to science and to hear testimonials from cannabis patients, more than enough data for him, a reasonable person, to change his views.

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The pragmatist will note that Hatch is merely following a trend set by other Republicans holding office. The co-sponsor of a (failed, but still symbolically important) bill to reschedule marijuana’s classification in the Controlled Substances Act was Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents one of the most conservative districts in the country. At the polls last November, cannabis won more votes than Donald Trump.

Gaetz can see this. Hatch is seeing it.

It’s long overdue and it’s still not quite enough, but Hatch’s evolution is of a piece. The pragmatist would look at all this and predict, rightly, that it will only be a matter of time before a bill rescheduling cannabis (and, after that, legalizing it outright) crosses the desk of the president of the United States.

Only the cynic would cross his arms, frown, and ask — however righteously — what took so long.