For a second it looked as if someone had mischievously switched teleprompter scripts on Pat Robertson, the tele-evangelist and founding member of the Christian Coalition. There he was on The 700 Club, a religious affairs TV talk show talking breezily about why America should legalise marijuana.
But this is the season for compassion and Mr Robertson – who usually makes waves nowadays only when he finds celestial or satanic cause for assorted disasters like the Haiti earthquake (a pact with the Devil to eject the French two centuries ago) or Hurricane Katrina (legalised abortion) – seemed to be serious. He said incarcerating people for taking "a couple of puffs" of pot might not be effective public or social policy.
Mr Robertson, who made an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 at the peak of his electronic ministry, may be responding to a shift in thinking that is already rippling through the conservative right. He found fault with the political atmosphere where candidates for office feel obliged to take a hard line on crime.
"We're locking up people that have taken a couple puffs of marijuana and next thing you know they've got 10 years with mandatory sentences," Mr Robertson said on The 700 Club.
"I'm not exactly for the use of drugs, don't get me wrong, but I just believe that criminalising marijuana, criminalising the possession of a few ounces of pot, that kinda thing ... it's costing us a fortune and it's ruining young people," Robertson went on. "Young people go into prisons, they go in as youths and come out as hardened criminals. That's not a good thing."
The campaign for legalisation, which boasts such figures as Willie Nelson among its most avid supporters, suffered a setback in November when a proposition on the ballot in California to legalise personal possession was turned down by voters.
The California debate stirred a national discussion, which in turn showed that liberal Democrats do not hold a monopoly on advocating reform. Conservative figures such as Glenn Beck of Fox News and Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, came out to support change also.
The right is reconsidering its stance on America's drug laws in part because of the rise of the Tea Party, which for many of its members is about libertarianism and thwarting government intrusions on personal choice.
It is also about fiscal responsibility – putting drug offenders in prison drains public coffers – and about a growing recognition that prohibition in the US is fuelling drug violence in Mexico, a reason cited by Mr Beck.
In October, Newsweek magazine published the results of a survey suggesting that while 25 per cent of Republicans favoured legalising personal marijuana use (compared with 55 per cent for Democrats), that was up 7 percentage points compared with 2005 when the last such poll was taken.Reuse content