The Drug Policies of 2016's Presidential Candidates

By Keri Blakinger 04/28/15

Three Republicans, one Democrat and what to look forward to in drug policy debates.

Hillary Clinton

With the 2016 presidential campaign season underway, four serious candidates have thrown their hats in the ring. On the Republican side, there’s Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). On the Democratic side, so far it’s just Hillary Clinton. Here at The Fix, we decided to take a look at each candidate’s stance on one issue we knew would interest our readers—drugs.

Hillary Clinton

Although Hillary Clinton became a household name during a notoriously tough-on-crime era in American politics, more recently she has spoken out against mass incarceration, saying our criminal justice system is “out of balance.” 

In her last presidential campaign, Clinton touted alternatives to incarceration. In a mid-2007 debate, she said, “We need diversion, like drug courts. Nonviolent offenders should not be serving hard time in our prisons. They need to be diverted from our prison system.” Although she hasn’t gone into a lot of detail yet, this time around the former Secretary of State is talking about treatment, as she says that addressing substance abuse will be one of her big campaign issues.

During her last bid for the presidency, Clinton also spoke about the importance of addressing the crack/powder sentencing disparity. At that point in time, on the federal level there was a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Thus, five grams of crack cocaine would trigger the same five-year mandatory minimum as 500 grams of powder cocaine. In an effort to address that sentencing disparity, Clinton cosponsored a 2007 bill that would have completely eliminated the crack/powder disparity. Ultimately, that piece of legislation didn’t pass, but it made clear Clinton’s stance on the issue. (Today, there is an 18-to-1 sentencing disparity, thanks to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, although it’s not clear if Clinton plans to continue reducing it.)

In terms of marijuana legalization—both recreational and medical—Clinton has been cautiously open to the possibilities. In 2007, she opposed decriminalization, but wanted more research. Since then, she’s continued expressing interest in further research, but has also seemingly supported state-level marijuana legalization, saying, "States are the laboratory of democracy.”

With any of Hillary’s reform-minded views, though, it’s wise to remember—as Jeff Stein recently pointed out in Salon— that the Clintons’ drug policies in the 1990s have contributed greatly to our current astronomical incarceration rate. 



Marco Rubio

To put it bluntly, a Rubio presidency would be absolutely terrible for drug reform. Last year, The Daily Beast wrote that Rubio is “casually clinging to the War on Drugs” and went on to predict that it would have “fatal consequences” for his presidential aspirations. That analysis was solidly based on an October 2014 Washington Times op-ed, in which he wrote: “While individuals from a variety of perspectives have made a compelling case that American law has been over-criminalized and over-federalized, reform must come from Congress, not the administration. Also, reform should not begin with careless weakening of drug laws that have done so much to help end the violence and mayhem that plagued American cities in prior decades.” While the first sentence shows that he doesn’t believe it would be his job to reform drug laws, the second seems to say that he doesn’t think they need reforming anyway. 

Rubio has been a stalwart opponent of marijuana legalization; last year he told Yahoo! News, "I don’t think there’s a responsible way to recreationally use marijuana."

At the same time, he has been evasive about questions regarding his own drug use: “You know why I never answer that question? I’ll tell you why I never answer that question. If I tell you that I haven’t, you won’t believe me. And if I tell you that I did, then kids will look up to me and say, ‘Well, I can smoke marijuana, ‘cause look how he made it. He did all right, so I guess I can do it, too.’” (Of course, based on his 2.1 high school GPA, one might reasonably believe that he was a pretty hardcore pothead.)



Rand Paul

Of all the candidates on this list, Rand Paul’s positions on these issues are perhaps the most surprising. He’s unequivocally a conservative, but with his libertarian leanings, Paul has often reached across the aisle on the topics of drug policy and criminal justice reform.   

Unlike his father, former presidential candidate Ron Paul, the Junior Senator from Kentucky is not in favor of outright legalizing drugs. He is, however, opposed to doling out harsh prison sentences for drug crimes. Last year, he sponsored RESET (Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment), a bill that would have both reduced some drug felonies to misdemeanors and eliminated the crack/powder sentencing disparity.

Currently, he’s cosponsoring the REDEEM Act with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). If it passes, REDEEM would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18, restrict the use of solitary confinement of minors, restore food stamp eligibility for nonviolent drug felons, and create a possible mechanism for sealing criminal records. 

Unfortunately for Paul, these stances probably won’t help him with the Republican base during the primaries and—in light of his other positions—probably aren’t enough to win over many Democrats if he makes it to the general election.



Ted Cruz

Like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz espouses some drug war and criminal justice positions that might seem unexpected from a candidate on the right. 

Currently, he—along with Paul—is a cosponsor on the Smarter Sentencing Act, legislation that would roll back mandatory minimum sentences. When the legislation was reintroduced earlier this year, Cruz said, “We should not live in a world of Les Misérables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.” 

When it comes to pot, Cruz says it’s a states’ rights issue. In February, he told Sean Hannity, “Look, I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the ‘laboratories of democracy.’ If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that’s their prerogative. I don’t agree with it, but that’s their right.”

That’s a bit of a change, though; just a year earlier he criticized the president for his decision not to enforce federal marijuana laws. In a 2014 interview with Reason, Cruz said, "I will say one thing that's been dismaying about the Obama administration is the Obama administration's approach to drug policy is to simply announce that across the country, it is going to stop enforcing certain drug laws. Now, that may or may not be a good policy, but I would suggest that should concern anyone—it should even concern libertarians who support that policy outcome—because the idea that the president simply says criminal laws that are on the books, we're going to ignore [them]. That is a very dangerous precedent."


General elections are still a year and a half away and it’s likely that many more candidates will declare in the coming months. Check back at The Fix over the coming months for more info on the candidates’ drug policy positions as the race to the White House continues.

Keri Blakinger is a writer and prison-reform activist living in upstate New York. A staff writer for The Ithaca Times, she has also been published in The Washington Post and Quartz. She last busted 10 drug myths and requested that you not tell her where the next AA meeting might be.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.