The Drug Policies of 2016's Presidential Candidates, Part 2

By Keri Blakinger 06/19/15

Back in May we detailed the drug policies of presidential hopefuls. A month and a half later, the amount of candidates seems to have multiplied. Keep track of their stance on drugs here.

Rick Santorum

Recently, The Fix ran a piece detailing the candidates’ positions on drugs and drug policy. Now, just a month and a half later, the candidates seem to be multiplying like rabbits, so it’s time for an update. In early May, there were just four candidates who had officially declared, but now that number has skyrocketed up to 16. Here’s a look at where the new candidates stand on issues that matter to readers of The Fix. 

Rick Santorum

Although the former U.S. senator has supported tough-on-crime policies in the past, Republican Rick Santorum says that’s not what he’s about anymore. That being said, as recently as 2012, he didn’t seem to have a real grip on the scope and effects of the War on Drugs. At a campaign event in New Hampshire leading up to the 2012 election, one questioner asked Santorum if, as someone professing to be a supporter of family values, he would as president still "destroy families by sending nonviolent drug offenders to prison." Santorum somewhat delusionally responded, "The federal government doesn't do that.” 

In fact, some of the candidate’s own votes have sought to do just that. When he was in the Senate, representing Pennsylvania, Santorum voted in support of an amendment (to bankruptcy legislation) to increase penalties on certain drug crimes. Of course, that was more than 15 years ago, back when supporting the drug war was still a good idea politically. 

Recently, Santorum clarified that although he has supported zero-tolerance policies in the past, he would no longer do so now. He told Fox News that he thought it was time to take a look at the high incarceration rate for drug offenders. 


Carly Fiorina

The former Hewlett-Packard CEO announced her candidacy in early May, on Good Morning America. In a crowded Republican field, Fiorina seems like a bit of a long-shot given her lack of political experience. 

In an interview with the editorial board of The Des Moines Register, Fiorina said, "We know that we don't spend enough money on the treatment of drug use,” adding, “When you criminalize drug abuse, you're actually not treating it.” Part of the reason for Fiorina’s liberal views on drug policy is that the topic hits close to home for her; her daughter Lori died in 2009, after years of battling addiction. 

Fiorina also said that three-strikes laws don’t work and that she recognizes that drug laws disproportionately affect African Americans. Although Fiorina said that she’s against decriminalizing marijuana, she also said that she would not direct the attorney general to enforce federal laws in states that have legalized pot. She said, "They're within their rights to legalize marijuana, and they're conducting an experiment I hope the rest of the nation is looking closely at."


Ben Carson

Like fellow Republican Rand Paul, Carson has come to politics from a medical background. From the start, he’s come out swinging against cannabis legalization. In 2014, he told Fox News: “It tends to be a starter drug for people who move onto heavier duty drugs—sometimes legal, sometimes illegal—I don’t think this is something that we really want for our society.

“You know, we’re gradually just removing all the barriers to hedonistic activity and you know, it’s just, we’re changing so rapidly to a different type of society and nobody is getting a chance to discuss it.”

In part because he is not already in a political office, there’s less information out there about Carson’s stand on specific issues, and he hasn’t spoken as much about criminal justice reform and drug policy as some of the other candidates. 


Mike Huckabee

In the last presidential election cycle, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was opposed to both recreational and medical marijuana use. This is probably not hugely surprising seeing as the former Baptist minister once penned a regular column in which he opposed everything from swearing to dancing to drinking. 

That was in high school, though. More recently, in an impressively offensive string of comparisons, Huckabee likened homosexuality to drug use and incest — because apparently snorting a couple lines is totally the same thing as having sex with your sister. 

Despite those views, Huckabee has also expressed support for criminal justice reform and drug treatment. In Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, he wrote, “An Arkansas prison official once told me that 88% of incarcerated inmates at his prison were there because of a drug or alcohol problem or because they committed a crime in order to get drunk or high. As he astutely observed, we do not have a crime problem, we have a drug and alcohol problem. While those who deal drugs and entice others into enslaving addictions deserve serious time and tough sentences, we lock up many nonviolent drug users, some of whom spend longer periods in prison than they would if they had committed a violent crime. Though many of the efforts to address this problem have brought some measure of sanity to the process—drug treatment as opposed to merely warehousing drug users—we need to do things differently.”


George Pataki

Anyone seriously interested in a Pataki presidency would do well to remember that the Peekskill native was governor of New York at a time when the Rockefeller Laws—some of the nation’s most draconian drug policies—were in full swing. 

Pataki, a Republican, became governor in 1995 and although, in 2005, he took some small steps to soften those laws, the bulk of the policies weren’t changed until 2009 when Democrat David Paterson was in office. Under Pataki’s tenure, New York toughened its sentencing and parole options for violent criminals and also, as he recently told The New Hampshire Journal, created shock incarceration camps for drug offenders. (Of course, as readers of The Fix might remember, those camps may not really be something he should brag about.)

Although he speaks proudly of the progress New York has made in reforming its drug laws, as recently as February of this year he said, “Sadly, drug reform often is an excuse to just turn loose violent criminals.” 

Given that view, it is perhaps not surprising that he also opposes marijuana legalization, as he told Bloomberg Television in January 2015. “But having said that,” he added, “I’m a great believer that the states are the laboratory of democracy.” 


Lindsey Graham

When he entered the race, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), rather dramatically, said that he was running for president because “the world is falling apart.” (One could certainly argue that his famously hawkish war stance will not help reverse that.)

Last year, Graham came out against recreational marijuana use, but voiced his support for medical marijuana. "I'm against legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes," he told WBTV. "But when it comes to medicinal marijuana and this oil, I think politicians should embrace what makes sense. When it comes to issues like this, I don't want to be academic in thought. This is about people. This is about families with sick children. Why should someone in my position get in the way of helping a child, if you can reasonably and logically do it?"

His other drug stances are less clear. When the Smarter Sentencing Act—a bill that addresses mandatory minimums and other drug law reforms—went through the Judiciary Committee in January, Graham did not vote for it. However, back in 2010, he co-sponsored the Fairer Sentencing Act which helped limit the crack/powder sentencing disparity. 


Rick Perry

Perry hails from the notoriously punitive state of Texas, so he might not seem like an ally on drug policy reform. However, during his time as governor, Perry drew accolades as a prison reformer. Under his rule, Texas drug courts expanded and the state actually closed one of its prisons. (By contrast, under the previous governor—George W. Bush—the state built 38 new prisons.) 

Last year at CPAC, Perry said, “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money. Stop the recidivism rates—lower them. That’s what can happen with these drug courts.” Perry has been seen as such a force for drug court expansion that last year the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) gave him their Governor of the Year Award. 

However, not everyone is convinced that Perry really deserves any of the credit for the changes in his state. As Ana Yáñez-Correa of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition told New Republic, “Perry is not always an obstacle but I can’t think of an issue on which he’s been a leader for reform.” That’s certainly less than a ringing endorsement. 

In terms of pot policy, Perry has both supported decriminalization and states’ rights. (As he told Jimmy Kimmel, though, he’s never smoked pot himself.)


Bernie Sanders

The Vermont senator is best known for his focus on the wealth gap and income inequality, and with those issues as his main focus he hasn’t spent quite as much time talking about the War on Drugs as one might expect. He has, however, talked about the problem of soaring incarceration rates. At a May 2015 event in New Hampshire, he told listeners, “Clearly one of the crises we face in our nation is that we have more people behind bars than any other country on earth ... China is a nation that is three or four times larger than us population wise, it is an authoritarian country, communist country, and we have far more people behind bars than does China. And what we do in our jails is we run a great educational system, we educate people how to be even better criminals.”

In 2014, he told Time, “I have supported the increased use of marijuana for medical purposes, and I can tell you when I was mayor of the city of Burlington, which includes the University of Vermont, I don’t recall that anybody was arrested for marijuana use. And I have real concerns about implications of the War on Drugs that has. We have been engaged in for decades now with a huge cost and the destruction of a whole lot of lives of people who were never involved in any violent activities.”

He went on to say that he didn’t think that recreational marijuana legalization was one of the major issues facing the country and he would not commit to supporting or opposing it. (He did, however, admit to having smoked pot in the past.)


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Martin O’Malley 

As the Democratic governor of Maryland, O’Malley approved legislation that allowed police to issue citations instead of making arrests for small amounts of marijuana possession. However, in January of 2014, on CNN he somewhat confusingly told Candy Crowley that he opposed full legalization because a lot of jobs open to young people today require background checks. Crowley pointed out that if it were legalized, people could still pass background checks. He didn’t seem to get it. 

Although O’Malley has boasted about how he lowered crime, incarceration, and recidivism during his time as Baltimore’s mayor and later as Maryland’s governor, not everyone agrees on O’Malley’s effect on the drug war. David Simon, the creator of The Wire, recently slammed O’Malley in an interview with The Marshall Project, citing his policing policies as being partly responsible for the drug war in Baltimore.


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Lincoln Chafee

When Chafee, the Democratic former Rhode Island governor, announced his presidential campaign in June 2015, he told a crowd at George Mason University, “Let’s unite with all our experience to rethink the War on Drugs. Obviously eradication, substitution and interdiction aren’t working. Let’s have an active, open-minded approach to the drug trafficking that can corrupt everything from the courts to the banks, to law enforcement in our hemisphere.”

Despite the assertion that we should “rethink” the War on Drugs, he wasn’t very specific about how that should occur. When a student asked him how he planned to do that rethinking, he offered the vague suggestion that he would “listen to neighborhoods.”

Last year when discussing marijuana legalization, in what The Huffington Post quite accurately described as a “stoner-sounding” idea, Chafee said, “Somebody was saying to me about the bad weather we've been having back home and all the potholes, we should have the revenue go to infrastructure—pot for potholes. Fix up our roads and bridges and fill our potholes, it's a bad winter up there.” 

Although he’s recognized the potential for useful tax revenue, Chafee has not gone so far as to endorse full legalization, saying, “Let's take it step by step on full legalization of marijuana, though; we want to see how it's working in Colorado."

That being said, during Chafee’s tenure as governor, Rhode Island decriminalized marijuana so that possession of less than an ounce merits only a $150 fine.


Donald Trump

The zany (read: batshit crazy) billionaire just threw his hat in the ring on June 16. During his announcement from New York City’s Trump Tower, he actually explained his campaign finance plans by telling the crowd, “I’m really rich.” Thanks, Donald. We hadn’t noticed.

Also during his announcement, he seemed to at least partially lay the blame for America’s drug problem at the feet of illegal immigrants, saying, "They're sending people who have lots of problems. They bring in drugs, they bring in crime, they're rapists. I assume some are good people."

The Donald’s most known stance on drugs sounds like a page from Ron Paul’s playbook: legalize them all. Back in 1990, Trump famously advocated legalizing drugs and using the tax revenue generated to pay for drug education. “We’re losing badly the War on Drugs,” he said. “You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from these drug czars.”

Given some of his crazy views (for instance, he’s a birther), this might be incredibly difficult to believe, but Trump claims that he’s never touched a drug, never had a sip of alcohol, and never so much as smoked a cigarette. That’s probably a really good thing because even without drugs, some aspects of his birther conspiracies are already more paranoid than most meth addicts I know.


Jeb Bush

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s positions on drugs are not notable for their consistency. Despite the fact that Jeb’s daughter Noelle has received drug treatment for her substance abuse problem, Bush has opposed drug treatment in favor of incarceration. As Arianna Huffington wrote in a scathing 2002 article for Salon, “While Noelle has been given every break in the book—and then some—her father has made it harder for others in her position to get the help they need by cutting the budgets of drug treatment and drug court programs in his state. He has also actively opposed a proposed ballot initiative that would send an estimated 10,000 nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of jail. I guess what’s good for the goose gets the gander locked away.”

Likewise, Rand Paul has called out Bush, although not for his views on treatment but for his views on marijuana. As a teenager, Bush was a pot smoker—and one classmate even alleges that Bush sold him hash. Nonetheless, Bush opposed marijuana legalization and, as governor, supported harsh drug policies.

The junior senator from Kentucky took issue with that. "I think it is hypocritical for very wealthy white people who have all the resources to evade the drug laws," Paul told Fox News earlier this year. "Particularly in Jeb Bush's case, he's against even allowing medical marijuana for people that are confined to wheelchairs from multiple sclerosis.”


There are more candidates still expected to declare over the coming months, so stay tuned for updates on the drug policies of each presidential hopeful.

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.

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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.