“I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol,” Mr. Robertson said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.”
Mr. Robertson’s remarks echoed statements he made last week on “The 700 Club,” the signature program of his Christian Broadcasting Network, and other comments he made in 2010. While those earlier remarks were largely dismissed by his followers, Mr. Robertson has now apparently fully embraced the idea of legalizing marijuana, arguing that it is a way to bring down soaring rates of incarceration and reduce the social and financial costs.
“I believe in working with the hearts of people, and not locking them up,” he said.
Mr. Robertson’s remarks were hailed by pro-legalization groups, who called them a potentially important endorsement in their efforts to roll back marijuana penalties and prohibitions, which residents of Colorado and Washington will vote on this fall.
“I love him, man, I really do,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former law enforcement officials who oppose the drug war. “He’s singing my song.”
For his part, Mr. Robertson said that he “absolutely” supported the ballot measures, though he would not campaign for them. “I’m not a crusader,” he said.
That comment may invite debate, considering Mr. Robertson’s long career of speaking out — and sometimes in ways that drew harsh criticism — in favor of conservative family values. Recently, he was quoted as saying that victims of tornadoes in the Midwest could have avoided their fate by praying more.
But advocates of overhauling drug laws say Mr. Robertson’s newfound passion on their issue could help sway conservative voters and other religious leaders to their cause.
“Pat Robertson still has an audience of millions of people, and they respect what he has to say,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for more liberal drug laws. “And he’s not backtracking. He’s doubling down.”
Mr. Robertson, 81, said that there had been no single event or moment that caused him to embrace legalization. Instead, his conviction that the nation “has gone overboard on this concept of being tough on crime” built up over time, he added.
“It’s completely out of control,” Mr. Robertson said. “Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties, the maximums, some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all.”
Such talk was welcomed by some other religious leaders, especially those in African-American communities who have long argued that blacks are unfairly targeted in drug cases.
Iva E. Carruthers, the general secretary for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, the Chicago group that represents hundreds of black clergy members and lay leaders, said Mr. Robertson’s remarks suggested that he recognized that “if you’re a Hollywood exec with money, you’re treated differently than if you’re a poor kid getting off public transportation and get arrested.”
“I would hope and think that it would move the needle for the large constituencies of evangelicals he represents,” Dr. Carruthers added.
She said that she personally supported marijuana legalization, as did a growing number of conference members. But whether Mr. Robertson’s endorsement would have a lasting impact was unclear, even to Mr. Robertson.
“I think they would agree if they understood the facts as I do,” he said of other evangelical leaders. “But it’s very hard.”
He attributed much of the problem of overpopulated jails to a “liberal mindset to have an all-encompassing government.”
Conservative groups that usually align with Mr. Robertson, meanwhile, were largely silent when asked for comment on his stance. For example, Focus on the Family — a Christian group whose disdain for same-sex marriage and support for family values are in line with Mr. Robertson’s — declined to respond beyond saying that the group opposes legalization of marijuana for medical or recreational use.
For his part, Mr. Robertson said he was “not encouraging people to use narcotics in any way, shape or form.” But he said he saw little difference between smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol, a longstanding argument from far more liberal — and libertarian-minded — leaders.
“If people can go into a liquor store and buy a bottle of alcohol and drink it at home legally, then why do we say that the use of this other substance is somehow criminal?” he said.
Mr. Franklin, who is a Christian, said Mr. Robertson’s position was actually in line with the Gospel. “If you follow the teaching of Christ, you know that Christ is a compassionate man,” he said. “And he would not condone the imprisoning of people for nonviolent offenses.”
Mr. Robertson said he enjoyed a glass of wine now and then — “When I was in college, I hit it pretty hard, but that was before Christ.” He added that he did not think marijuana appeared in the Bible, though he noted that “Jesus made water into wine.”
“I don’t think he was a teetotaler,” he said.
And while Mr. Robertson said his earlier hints at support for legalization had led to him being “assailed by those who thought that it was terrible that I had forsaken the straight and narrow,” he added that he was not worried about criticism this time around.
“I just want to be on the right side,” he said. “And I think on this one, I’m on the right side.”