"We're locking up people that take a couple of puffs of marijuana, and the next thing you know they've got 10 years," the controversial pastor said on "The 700 Club" on Dec. 16, in a clip unearthed by bloggers this week. "I'm not exactly for the use of drugs - don't get me wrong - but I just believe that criminalizing marijuana, criminalizing the possession of a few ounces of pot and that kind of thing, I mean, it's just, it's costing us a fortune and it's ruining young people."
It was a surprising admission from a Christian conservative and favorite target of liberals, who have pounced on his assertions that the earthquake that devastated Haiti's capital city in January resulted from a pact with the Devil, for example, or that Hurricane Katrina was punishment for abortion and the country's general moral decay.
"His voice is respected by hundreds of thousands or millions of people who might not otherwise think about this issue seriously. His comments were a very important step forward," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports legalizing and taxing marijuana. "The only way that this country's going to end up with more sensible and sane drug laws is if people call for it from across the political spectrum."
On Thursday, a CBN spokesman said in an e-mail that Robertson is "unequivocally" against illegal drug use and that he does not support legalizing marijuana.
The nation's attitude toward marijuana has changed dramatically over the past two decades. In an October Washington Post poll, 43 percent of respondents said they would be in favor of legalizing the possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use - up from 22 percent in 1997.
Fifteen states and the District allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes, and there are signs that public consternation is growing over the sometimes severe punishments doled out for minor drug offenses. In Montana last week, a group of potential jurors objected en masse upon learning that a man was arrested on marijuana possession. The uprising led the prosecution to seek a plea deal.
Self-described conservatives remain the most opposed to legalizing marijuana, with 69 percent against such a change in the laws in the Post poll. But there have been recent efforts to convince conservatives that it is in line with their small-government philosophy to consider alternatives to imprisonment for minor drug offenses.
Gary Johnson, a libertarian and former Republican governor of New Mexico, took his pro-legalization message to tea party rallies this summer. Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R-Ind.) this month embraced a proposal to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, including some drug criminals, and to increase access to drug treatment programs - in the name of government efficiency.
"Conservatives for a long time have supported a one-size-fits-all solution, which is: Lock them up and throw away the key. There's a growing realization that it hasn't worked very well and it's been very expensive," said David Guenthner, spokesman for Right on Crime, a Texas-based group that advocates for criminal justice reforms from a conservative perspective. The group does not support decriminalizing marijuana, however.
Guenthner would not comment on Robertson's remarks, which came after "The 700 Club" aired a segment on Right on Crime and faith-based programs in prisons.
"Those men and women want to know the Lord, but there's something else we've got to recognize. . . . These judges, they say, they throw their hands up and say, there's nothing we can do because of these mandatory sentences," Robertson said.
He continued: "We've got to take a look at what we're considering crimes, and that's one of them. . . . Young people go into prison . . . as youths and they come out as hardened criminals, and it's not a good thing."