Republicans on Drugs - Page 2

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

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The Pot Question

The way politicians do—and do not—talk about drugs and addiction in their own lives is instructive. Almost without exception, the talk is mired in shame. Questions are experienced as gotcha moments. Answers are packaged as confession and contrition or as evasion, defensiveness, even outraged self-righteousness.

What is at stake in the 2016 presidential elections. . .is about the Gordian knot of substance abuse, drug crimes, mass incarceration, the destructive cycles of institutionalized racism…

Ever since Bill Clinton, the first Baby Boomer to run for president, said that he did not inhale, every potential candidate faces "The Pot Question." With one-half of all Americans having used reefer, attitudes about so-called youthful experimentation with drugs have relaxed. But to preserve appearances (or something), pols running for the highest office in the land are anything but relaxed when answering the question.

Marco Rubio: “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 because look how he made it. He did all right so I guess I can do it, too,’” he told ABC News last year. (Count that as a yes.)

Ted Cruz: The Ivy League–educated evangelical Christian could not bring himself to provide an answer. A Cruz rep was summoned. “Teenagers are often known for their lack of judgment, and Senator Cruz was no exception,” he told the British tabloid the Daily Mail in February. “When he was a teenager, he foolishly experimented with marijuana. It was a mistake, and he’s never tried it since.”

Rand Paul: “Let’s just say I wasn’t a choir boy when I was in college and that I can recognize that kids make mistakes, and I can say that I made mistakes when I was a kid,” Paul told the Washington Times in December. (In 2010, a former frat buddy told Politico, “Randy smoked pot.”)  

Jeb Bush: “I drank alcohol and I smoked marijuana when I was at Andover. It was pretty common…[It was] stupid [and] wrong.” (During his campaign for governor, a former Andover buddy said that he had bought hash from Bush but insisted that Bush was “not a dealer.” Not a dealer—he just sold illegal drugs.)

Rick Santorum: “When I was in college, I smoked pot and that was something that I did when I was in college. It was something that I’m not proud of, but I did. And I said it was something that I wish I hadn’t done. But I did and I admitted it,” he tortuously said in 2011 on Piers Morgan Tonight.

Scott Walker: “The wildest thing I did in college was drink beer,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in February.

Chris Christie: “The answer is no,” Christie tweeted when asked in 2012, on Twitter, by a Willie Nelson-inspired pro-pot political party after Christie said he would veto a bill passed by the New Jersey State Assembly decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.

Mike Huckabee: “While other candidates are being outed for their teenage drug use, their teenage alcohol use, their teenage partying hard, doing all sorts of destructive things like painting graffiti on bridges, the scandal with me is that I wrote a column at age 17 telling Christian young people to live a godly life [and not to dance],”  the onetime Southern Baptist seminarian told Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, an anti-gay hate group, in February.

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, votes and vetoes. Often, there is a disconnect. Sometimes, there is a contradiction that smacks of the familiar hypocrisy we have come to expect of, and accept from, our elected officials. 

Marco Rubio

Ever since he was elected to the Senate in 2008, the Cuban-American Rubio has been prized by his party as presidential material. His legislative record is thin, but he speaks like an old-fashioned drug warrior, thumping on about incarceration at home and militarization abroad. In November, he penned noteworthy back-to-back op-eds in major papers.

In the Washington Times, he attacked reforms to mandatory-minimum sentences as "careless weakening of drug laws that have done so much to help end the violence and mayhem that plagued American cities in prior decades.”

In the Miami Herald, he praised Plan Colombia as “one of history’s most successful counterinsurgency programs.” Plan Colombia was a US strategy to stabilize Colombia and combat its cocaine trafficking and left-wing insurgents with a combination of economic and military aid. Some $9 billion rained down on the strife-ridden nation over six years. Not surprisingly, the military grew richer and more corrupt, and their target increasingly shifted from the drug war and the cartels to the civil war and the guerillas. Millions of Colombians have been displaced, and human rights abuses remain rife. Cocaine cultivation and production moved to Peru and Bolivia. To critics, Plan Colombia is the failed and wasteful drug war in microcosm.

As it happens, Marco Rubio’s brother-in-law is a Colombian-born convicted drug trafficker—not the usual criminality in a senatorial biography. When Rubio was 16, his sister’s husband, Orlando Cicilia, was a member of a Cuban-American drug operation that imported kilos of cocaine and marijuana, bribed police officers, even dismembered an informant. There were also allegations that the house Rubio’s sister shared with his brother-in-law was used in the trafficking. Cicilia was sentenced to 25 years in prison and  paroled in 2000 just as Rubio’s political star was rising. Interestingly, Rubio didn’t banish his brother-in-law to the shadows. For example, he was onstage with the rest of Rubio’s family when Rubio was elected Florida state house speaker. Yet, Cicilia’s drug-running history remained unreported for a decade.

Univision, the nation’s biggest Spanish-language TV network, broke the news in 2011, when Rubio was being discussed as a potential Republican vice-presidential nominee. Univision’s coverage morphed into an element in the Republican primary, but in an odd way. The media piled on, calling it “tabloid journalism.” Not only did Rubio say that he was offended by the revelations, but he retaliated against Univision, accusing the network of offering a deal to kill the story if he sat for an exclusive interview. The conservative media politicized Rubio’s claim of a shakedown and soon the contenders in the Republican primary agreed to boycott their planned Univision debate.

To ask Rubio a direct question about his brother-in-law was to participate in the “smear.” When New Yorker magazine writer Ken Auletta finally put the question to him, Rubio said, “I just don’t think that’s a valid news story that a news organization runs. I thought that was a tabloid news item. I don’t deal with tabloids.”

To this day, Rubio has never said anything about his brother-in-law’s crime, imprisonment and rehabilitation. “Rubio could have described his brother-in-law’s story as one of redemption, not shame,” Auletta wrote. “He could have said that Orlando Cicilia committed a crime and was properly punished for it. With the benefit of understanding, and family support, he was then able to emerge as a productive US citizen. That, Rubio could have said, is a truly American story.” 

Jeb Bush

John Ellis “Jeb” Bush is the second son in the Bush family dynasty. That does not automatically deliver the Republican presidential nomination to him. Surprises sometimes happen in the heat of a race. But the primary is probably his to lose. 

Bush, a two-term Florida governor, had been out of office for seven years when, in the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections, he suddenly took to the media to lobby hard against the Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative, or Amendment 2, which was polling 88% in favor.

“Florida leaders and citizens have worked for years to make the Sunshine State a world-class location to start or run a business, a family-friendly destination for tourism and a desirable place to raise a family or retire,” he said. “Allowing large-scale, marijuana operations to take root across Florida, under the guise of using it for medicinal purposes, runs counter to all of these efforts.” This statement was false—Amendment 2 prohibited industrial pot cultivation—but it was an effective talking point of the "Don't Let Florida Go to Pot" campaign’s organizer, the Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF), and the amendment went down.

In February, Rand Paul called Bush a “hypocrite” for taking this stand against legalizing medical marijuana, given that Bush was a one-time toker. It was not the first time Bush was charged with drug-related hypocrisy.

Three years into his first term as governor, Bush’s daughter, Noelle, then 23 years old, was arrested for faking a prescription for Xanax. Charged with a felony, she was facing a possible five-year sentence. Instead, a pre-trial diversion program handled her case—a first-time drug charge— and she was sent to get treatment. At the Center for Drug-Free Living, in Orlando, she was busted in short order for having crack cocaine in her shoe. The police investigation into her case, which could have resulted in two more felony charges, was shut down by a judge. Noelle spent a few days in jail, then returned to the rehab. As a serial offender, the governor’s daughter might have received the rough justice recommended by supporters of “three-strikes” laws for the tens of thousands of Floridians—mostly poor and black—warehoused in the state’s prisons on nonviolent drug convictions. She got off easy, to say the least. 

Especially galling to advocates of drug law reform was that even as Noelle was remanded to rehab rather than prison, Bush did not pause in his loud opposition to therapy rather than prison. (On the day before Noelle’s arrest, Bush had slashed the state budget for drug treatment in prison.) “[Bush] waged a vigorous 12-month campaign against a proposed ballot initiative that would allow Floridians the right to drug treatment for a first and second nonviolent drug possession offense,” said Stephen Heath of the Drug Policy Forum of Florida.

Florida’s leading Republican Party fundraiser, Mel Sembler is, also together with his wife, Betty, its leading drug war advocate. The Drug Free America Foundation is their zero-tolerance baby. It produces junk science, fear-based PSAs and other propaganda to turn back the tide of legalization, organizing campaigns like “Don’t Let Florida Go to Pot” and the 2012 Colorado version, Smart Colorado, opposing the state’s Amendment 64. The Semblers apparently view the entire agenda of rational drug policy, from mandatory-minimum reforms to harm reduction, almost as a mortal threat to America’s children. An example: Legalizing weed will result in Big Marijuana, which will get a new generation “addicted” to pot just as Big Tobacco hooked kids on cigarettes.

Sembler, a billionaire Florida shopping center magnate, and his wife owned Straight, Inc., a national chain of “tough love” drug rehabs for teens that profited for two decades from drug prohibition until its long history of teen abuse scandals caught up with it. After Straight was shut down, the Semblers regrouped with DFAF.

The Bush family goes way back with the Semblers. Mel Sembler raised many millions for the presidential campaigns of George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, and in turn Sembler got ambassadorship appointments. In 2000, recently elected Florida governor Jeb Bush declared August 8 “Betty Sembler Day” in honor of her humanitarian service as an anti-drug crusader founding nonprofits, leading commissions, advising officials and the like. 

More recently, Jeb Bush served on DFAF’s advisory board, as did James McDonough, the former army colonel who was Bush’s drug czar. McDonough headed the state’s office of drug control at a time when HIV and hepatitis C were a public health crisis among IV drug users, and activists were persuading city councils to consider funding needle exchanges. McDonough stumped the state to stop this lifesaving measure, calling it a failure and “very ugly, very vile stuff.”

Why Vote?

Under President Obama, a significant beginning was made in trying to turn around the gargantuan ship that is the War on Drugs. A public health approach to drugs and addiction has picked up steam. Advocates on both sides of the legalization issue applaud his former attorney general, Eric Holder, for raising awareness about, and reducing, disparate sentencing for crack cocaine, mandatory minimums and other “Smart on Crime” reforms. The feds no longer make it a practice to impede a state’s medical marijuana operations. 

At the same time, however, Obama caved on federal funding of needle exchanges. The spending on military strategies to counter global narco-trafficking has soared under his leadership. The president’s legacy is likely to leave advocates disappointed—big hope, small change. Yet, they will have a lot more to complain about if the next administration reverses his policies and dismantles his reforms. 

What is at stake in the 2016 presidential elections goes beyond the right to smoke pot for fun. It is about the violent protests in the suffering streets of Baltimore last month. It is about the fact that one out of three African-American men is in prison, often for nonviolent offenses. It is about the Gordian knot of substance abuse, drug crimes, mass incarceration, the destructive cycles of institutionalized racism…and elected officials who propose solutions like drug testing people on Medicaid.

Addressing the protests in Baltimore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, said, “You cannot talk about smart policing and reforming the criminal-justice system if you also don’t talk about what’s needed to provide economic opportunity,” she said, and: “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America.” 

It is impossible to imagine any of the Republican contenders for the presidential nomination using the words economic opportunity, race and justice together when talking about drug law reformWhile Rand Paul and Scott Walker stand on opposing sides of drug war policy, Clinton’s speech is a sharp reminder that the two parties stand on opposing sides of history. 

Obama’s drug czar, Michael Botticelli, is the first drug czar not to come from a military or law enforcement background. He is also the first drug czar who is openly gay and, more importantly, open about being an addict in recovery. Botticelli has not endorsed the legalization of cannabis. But he is the first drug czar to open the office of national drug policy to the harm reduction movement, calling for nationwide use of the anti-OD drug naloxone by police and for the expansion of needle exchanges and medication-assisted treatment (MAT, including methadone and buprenorphine) for opiate addicts. 

He is also the first drug czar to call out the stigma surrounding drug abuse and addiction—and to do so as an addict in recovery. “I almost found it easier to come out as being a gay man than a person in recovery,” Botticelli told The New York Times last month. “We’re doing an amazing job decreasing the shame and stigma surrounding gay folks. There is a playbook for this.”

The drug policy agenda in a Jeb Bush presidential administration cannot be predicted. It might split the baby between Right on Crime reformists and the Drug Free America Foundation’s prohibitionists. But one thing is certain: A war on the shame and stigma surrounding people with drug abuse problems would not be on the agenda.

Walter Armstrong is the former deputy editor of The Fix.

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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.