Republicans on Drugs

By Walter Armstrong 05/17/15

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

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

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.