COLUMBIA, Mo. – Eapen Thampy, the founder of Heartland Priorities, spoke in front of the Columbia Pachyderm Club Friday. He spoke on a topic that only a decade and a half ago likely would have been taboo for any official party event – legalizing cannabis or marijuana for medical use.

Thampy has advocated for drug reform for years and has worked vociferously in the Capitol for Missouri to becoming one of the states that authorizes medical cannabis. While more liberal states have led the charge, the Republican supermajority of Missouri’s General Assembly and other conservative state legislatures have begun to reconsider their previous positions.

Evidence suggests the last great barrier to the legalization of cannabis at the national level, either medicinally or recreationally, is the conservative branch of the Republican Party. In a 2015 poll from the Pew Research Center, conservatives oppose legalization by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, while Democrats and independents support those measures with 60-percent majorities. Even moderate Republicans split on the issue roughly 50-50.

Missouri advocates for medical marijuana have seen some setbacks in recent months. Rep. Dave Hinson’s ultimately unsuccessful Missouri Compassionate Care Act would have legalized and regulated medical marijuana standards in the state, but it was defeated on third read. The other primary effort to make medical cannabis a reality in Missouri has stalled. An initiative petition from New Approach Missouri had enough signatures invalidated in the verification process that it lacked the number required to make the ballot. New Approach is currently fighting to get the signatures approved to get on the November ballot.

So for a nonpartisan like Thampy reaching out to conservatives means framing the debate in such a way that reflects the values of the GOP, especially limited government and personal responsibility.

“The conservative argument for [medical cannabis] is individual liberty and government failure,” Thampy said. “Cannabis prohibition definitely infringes upon the fundamental rights of individuals to choose their own medical treatment and medical care, and it represents a failure of four years of bad government policies.

“Everyone has witnessed the failure, but you need to put it in language everyone understands.”

The conservative argument

Yet, his argument is no mere turn of rhetoric on Thampy’s part. In his speech, he detailed the Supreme Court case of Gonzales v. Raich. California resident Angel Raich, who suffers from an inoperable brain tumor, used medical cannabis to treat pain. When the Drug Enforcement Agency destroyed her supplier’s operation, she sued the federal government. Raich lost the case, but those in attendance seemed upset that the government had encroached upon the ability to free herself from from substantial pain.

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Rep. Chuck Basye

Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, knows about that kind of pain, saying that he looks at the issue not from a conservative lens but “from a standpoint of compassion.”

Basye was one of many Republicans who voted in favor of Hinson’s bill. Basye said after speaking with Thampy as well as veterans suffering from PTSD and others with debilitating ailments, he was open to giving people the option to seek alternative treatments.

His sister-in-law’s own death after a battle with cancer in 2004 also guided his vote.

“She had a terrible battle with that and at the end of her life, she was essentially drinking morphine to kill the pain,” he said. “When you look at situations like that, I think we should help people deal with it.”

The road ahead

Basye led the Pachyderms in welcoming Thampy to the luncheon. The latter’s speech in front of the Pachyderms shows in many ways how far the debate has come since the dawn of the new millennium. In 2000, only five states had legalized medical cannabis. Now, 25 states and the District of Columbia have legal medical marijuana and four states have legalized it recreationally.

Even more encouraging to Thampy was the response. While many of those in attendance appeared to have reservations about specific applications of possible laws, the room filled with older, conservative Republicans (demographically the people least likely to support measures on marijuana) seemed receptive the argument if not in total agreement.

Not everyone seemed prepared to go along with the approach however. One attendee made his disagreement public in a question and answer session after the bulk of the speech.

“Everything you’re teaching is just a liberal or progressive slant to help destroy our way of life in America,” he said.