It’s day two of Charlie Kirk’s AmericaFest, and freedom is in the air. At a gathering aimed primarily at Gen Z and Millennial conservatives, the theme is threaded throughout the event, and it can be seen everywhere: Never has the American flag been donned in some many iterations. The red, white, and blue motif graces blazers, cowboy hats, and high heels, as well as the photo backdrops and stage lighting.
Freedom is the implicit message of Sunday’s opening worship led by Sean Feucht, a Christian musician and former worship leader at Bethel Church in Redding, California. Feucht hosted a mass religious gathering in downtown Nashville in October 2020, to the chagrin of city health officials. Thousands of young adults and students pile in as early as 7:30 a.m. to hear his tunes.
An hour or so later, Donald Trump, Jr. takes the stage and reminds the young MAGA fans what they’re nominally here for. “You guys are the frontline of freedom. Fight for your country because it’s worth it,” he urges, between laughing at the military for promoting transgender pilots and calling “Let’s Go Brandon” the biggest cultural phenomenon of the last 50 years. He calls Democrats hypocrites. “If I was doing crack, you probably wouldn’t give me the pass,” he says, alluding to Hunter Biden.
A familiar herby floral scent wafts toward me and I avert my gaze from Trump Jr.’s dogged comedy show. The guy in the next seat asks if I’d like a hit from his vape pen. “THC?” I ask. He nods mischievously.
It’s a surprise, but it’s not all that surprising. The young people here displayed traditional values with a penchant for partying, and – like many young conservatives – their views on cannabis legalization and drug decriminalization are complicated.
Eighteen states, two territories, and the District of Columbia currently allow recreational marijuana use, while 36 states and four territories allow medical use. According to Pew Research Center, 63% of Republicans ages 18 to 29 believe that marijuana should be legal for recreational and medical use. But as age increases, that number decreases: 53% of those ages 30 to 49, 48% of those 50 to 64, and just 27% of Republicans 65 and up favor making marijuana legal recreationally and medically.
Oregon decriminalized non-commercial amounts of illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine through Measure 110, which went into effect on February 1st. The jury is still out on the consequences for a state that didn’t have the robust recovery systems in place to prepare for decriminalization.
“Marijuana should be legalized,” says Tyler Pemberton, a 27-year-old donning a khaki cowboy getup.
“The war on drugs is a losing war. I don’t partake recreationally, but as long as it’s used in moderation and not abused, it’s fine,”says the Grand Canyon University student. “I’ve never heard of anyone overdosing on marijuana, but I have heard of people overdosing on meth and heroin. But I don’t think throwing people in jail helps. The only thing that should be criminalized is the intent to distribute.”
At AmericaFest, views on marijuana are mixed, but questions about harder drugs gleaned a more hesitant approach.
Ishmael Sharif, a 20-year-old from Chicago, doesn’t stand by recreational legalization of marijuana. “Marijuana legalization is a gimmick in Illinois to extract more revenue from communities. I don’t think the state believes in it and I don’t believe in it,” he says. They’re just doing it to make money off people.” Sharif said that he could get behind medical legalization, but advised against the decriminalization of hard drugs.
Illinois residents could buy recreational marijuana starting on January 1st, 2020. The state collected $205 million in tax revenue from its sales last year, according to Marijuana Moment, and $31 million of that went to nonprofits.
The attitudes here reflect a broad public reimagining of how to deal with drugs and the people who use them – a shift that politicians are slowly catching up with. In June, Democrats initiated a bill to end President Nixon’s famous “War on Drugs” declaration 50 years prior. The Drug Policy Reform Act, introduced by Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) would decriminalize personal use and possession of all drugs, expunge current records and allow for re-sentencing and invest in health-centered responses to drug addiction.
Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced the States Reform Act in November, which would decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, delisting it as a Schedule I drug under Drug Enforcement Agency rules. The bill would also allow for expungement of federal convictions in nonviolent cases and lay the groundwork for federal regulation and enforcement in states that allow marijuana sales.
As I talk about drugs with TPUSA attendees, for many of them, it comes back to freedom, or at least, to the absence of government. “The less government the better when it comes to marijiuana legalization; it has clearly shown promise for pain relief,” says Czeena Devera, a 31-year-old children’s book publisher from Michigan. “But harder drugs are a different story and have the potential to wreck a society. Those need to be regulated.”