Republicans on Drugs

By Walter Armstrong 05/17/15

The Republican hopefuls cover the spectrum on drug policy. The Fix digs deeper.

Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush

Will the 2016 presidential contest be “The Marijuana Election”? The notion seems like a stoner’s musing, but advocates of legalization have a case to make. “Marijuana clearly has arrived as an issue at the forefront of mainstream American politics,” Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, told The Hill in April. “Before, it was marginalized, even laughed at. It wasn’t respected as a serious issue.”

As Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and DC legalized recreational use over the past three years, marijuana has become a big media story. Americans found themselves actually thinking about the issue, and with surprising speed many came to the conclusion that criminalizing a drug that is so widely used and that is safer than alcohol is just plain irrational.

Given that the personal is political, there is strikingly little talk of how the effects of drugs and addiction in the politician’s own life might have informed his “official” statements and positions

In the most recent Pew survey (October 2014), 52% of Americans said that they favor the legal use of marijuana, 39% of Republicans compared to 63% of Democrats. Support has jumped by a remarkable 15 points in both political parties in only four years. The millennials (born after 1982) can be thanked for this progress. In a February 2014 survey, 63% of GOP millennials said that they back legalization. The pro-pot sentiment among Republicans decreases generationally: Generation Xers (47%), Baby Boomers (38%) and the Silent Generation (17%). 

Attitudes have also reached a tipping point, after four decades and trillions of dollars, about the entire War on Drugs. In a Pew survey (April, 2014), two-thirds of Americans favor treatment rather than prison, together with an end to mandatory minimums, for convicted users of heroin, cocaine and other illegal drugs. Republicans are evenly split on both issues.

Even if the liberalization of drug laws has not yet made it onto the “most important issue” list in polls of likely 2016 voters, a small but significant number will, for the first time, factor in a candidate’s positions when picking. Millennials are expected to pay special attention. And with legalization initiatives on the ballot in at least five states—including California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Arizona—these kids are a Democratic-leaning constituency that a pro-pot Republican like Rand Paul can reasonably compete for.

Rand Paul 

Paul is the hands-down favorite of the legalization lobby. “He is going to force other candidates, whether it’s in the Republican primary or the general [election], to take positions on these issues,” Drug Policy Alliance policy director Michael Collins told Politico in January.

Paul announced his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination in April with the sunny slogan, “Destroy the Washington Machine.” The Kentucky senator has spent two terms inside the Washington machine as its leading libertarian, taking a states’ rights position on issues ducked by most Republicans. No issue has earned him more attention than drug legalization. 

Paul was the first congressional Republican to say that the federal government has no business blocking a state’s efforts to implement cannabis legalization. In a time of Republican obstructionism in Congress, Paul backed up that call by crossing the aisle to co-sponsor the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015. CARERS would protect state-legalized medical marijuana—and growers, sellers and users—from federal intervention, along with making it easier for medical researchers to study it and for veterans to get treatment with it. The 2015 sentencing bill would make federal crack cocaine offenders sentenced before 2010 eligible for reduced sentences. Neither bill, however, is popular in the current Congress.

Paul may be the Great Green Hope of anti-prohibitionists, but the general assumption that he supports legalization of recreational use is false. "I really haven’t taken a stand on…the actual legalization. I haven’t really taken a stand on that, but I’m against the federal government telling them they can’t,” Paul told Roll Call in November. “He’s been pretty clear that marijuana is bad for people, but they should not have their lives ruined for smoking it,” a Paul spokesman said. 

“Even if some candidates aren’t willing to endorse legalization outright, expressing openness to letting states set their own marijuana laws without federal interference is a way to appeal to this growing voter bloc without necessarily offending the shrinking segment of older voters who still aren’t ready to abandon prohibition in their own states,” Marijuana Majority’s Angell told Reason magazine.

The Republican Primary

Paul’s record is exceptional, which is one reason he has no chance of becoming the Republican Party’s standard-bearer.

Although the Iowa caucuses—the official start of primary season—are (a very long) nine months away, nearly 20 Republicans are already lining up to run. That sounds like a big horse race, but many analysts already predict that only a few men have a real shot: Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and, of course, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is set to break fundraising records. According to Real Clear Politics’ average of the most recent polls (May 15), Bush leads with 15.4% to 13.2% for both Walker and for Rubio, followed by Paul at 9.2%, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee 8.6%, Texas Senator Ted Cruz 8.6%, retired neurosurgeon-cum-evangelist Christian Ben Carson 7.8%, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie 5.4%, former Texas Governor Rick Perry 2.4%, former Pennsylvania Governor Rick Santorum 2.3%, Ohio Governor John Kasich 2.0%, with Hewlett Packard ex-CEO Carly Fiorina, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham at 1.3%.

The Republican Party is uniquely designed to allow a politician to have it both ways on the legalization issue because principles like states’ rights, anti-regulation and small government are central to its philosophy. Thanks partly to Paul, no Republican can win the party’s nomination if he backs a federal crackdown on a state’s legalization.

Right on Crime

Drug law reform is not a clear-cut partisan issue. Although Republicans cherish their “tough on crime” credentials, the waste of resources, coupled with the devastation of minority communities, caused by the exploding rate of incarceration has become an intractable problem that demands solutions. And many conservatives increasingly accept the folly of the status quo.

In 2010 a Texas-based group called Right on Crime was launched to propose reforms. Spearheaded by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who calls mandatory minimums “the poor man’s Prohibition,” the advocacy group quickly gained influence in the conservative Washington establishment. Its case for reform is based primarily on the prohibitive financial cost of mass incarceration. Drug courts are a top priority. The word racism, which many experts argue is at the heart of this “new Jim Crow,” gets no mention on Right on Crime’s website.

Most reforms are taking place at the state level because state prisons are bursting. Since 2007, ultraconservative Texas has closed three adult and six juvenile prisons, applying some of the savings to drug treatment. Then-Governor Rick Perry, who showed his support by simply not vetoing the legislation, has taken credit for this success.

“[Drug law reform] is not an issue where everybody is already there,” Norquist told the Daily Beast in 2014. “But by the time we get to the [Iowa] caucuses, every single Republican running for president will be versed on this, and largely in the same place…Some guys will be playing catch-up ball, but I do believe that, largely, this will become a consensus issue within the center right.”

Sure enough, since February, Ted Cruz joined Rand Paul on pushing for easing mandatory minimums, while Jeb Bush and Rick Perry have signed onto Right on Crime’s initiative. Chris Christie backs releasing nonviolent offenders pending trial without bail. Of the top candidates only Scott Walker and Marco Rubio have not snapped to it.

Scott Walker

Walker, the two-term Wisconsin governor who is probably Bush’s biggest threat, has won Republican establishment support as a “fiscal hawk” and “tough on crime.” He has sponsored bills increasing mandatory minimums for many crimes (including boating while intoxicated), as well as extending prison time and ending parole for many criminals. In February, he announced that he would introduce drug testing as a condition of eligibility for food stamps, unemployment compensation and Medicaid. “We need people who are drug free,” Walker said. “This is about getting people ready for work.”

Yet, similar policies by governors in 12 other states have proved to be a waste of money: Among recipients of public benefits in Florida, where drug testing was used, the rate of positives was 3.6%, compared to 9% in the general population. 

Critics say that Walker’s efforts to slash public funding no matter the actual fiscal consequences have served mainly as a demonstration to conservatives nationwide that this evangelical Christian is mean, er, man enough to make war on the poor. “[Drug testing] is not about the workers,” Wisconsin's Jobs Now Jennifer Epps-Addison told ThinkProgress. “This is about Governor Walker playing to the dog whistle politics of the worst of his base as he follows his presidential aspirations.”

Walker calls marijuana a “gateway drug” to heroin and methamphetamine use, although that theory is discredited. He dismisses comparisons between marijuana and alcohol, saying that pot cannot be used responsibly.

But last year he signed a bill legalizing a low-THC strain of cannabis effective exclusively in people with severe epilepsy. (Only 2% of all patients in need of medical pot have seizure disorders.) Now, Walker said, “I will keep an open mind” on medical marijuana. 

Walker’s casting his lot with drug warriors is a risky strategy. An open mind might come in handy if primary season shows a swing toward the Rand Paul approach to drugs.

Ted Cruz

After only two years in the Senate, Cruz has earned the dubious distinction as its most obstructionist member. Having made his name by forcing the 2013 government shutdown, the Tea Party hero is not, for most Americans, an example of stellar leadership. In search of a fast makeover, he has recently begun acting more like a legislator on a few issues, including drug law reform—a libertarian cause that also appeals to some fiscal and Christian conservatives. In February, he signed on as a co-sponsor of the Smarter Sentencing ACT of 2015, saying at the press conference, “Far too many young men, in particular African-American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system [and] subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor nonviolent drug infractions.” 

As it happens, addiction issues played a decisive role in Cruz’s childhood. The story, as told for the first time by Cruz in his February speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University where he announced his presidential run, is that his father, Rafael—“drinking a lot [and] living a fast life”—abandoned him and his mother when Cruz was three years old. Some time later, Rafael was invited to a Bible study class and “gave his life to Christ,” returned to his family and began paying the bills by preaching storefront Dominionism. From his perch as the head of Purifying Fire Ministries in Houston, Texas, he has parlayed his mission to turn the US into a Christian theocracy into a position of influence on the religious right. 

The stigma surrounding addiction made Rafael Cruz’s alcoholism a detail necessarily omitted from this Cuban exile’s official “American dream” biography until his son’s national exposure required its disclosure. In April, the media uncovered another detail: Miriam Cruz, the senator’s half-sister from his father’s first marriage, was found dead in 2011 of a prescription painkiller overdose while she was awaiting trial on charges of theft and public drunkenness. When asked about his half-sister, Cruz had no comment.

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.