The Republican Silence on Drug Policy

By Keri Blakinger 09/21/15

Drug policy has become a hot topic. But you'd never know it if you watched last week's Republican debate.

The Republican Silence on Drug Policy

Every day, drugs are in the news. There are stories about the heroin epidemic and the increasing death toll. There’s coverage of the increasing availability of naloxone, as well as coverage of the recent price hikes for the life-saving drug. In July, President Obama made headlines when he commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders. Then, in September, he announced a plan to increase access to buprenorphine, an opioid replacement therapy.

It seems that drugs—and drug policy—have become a hot topic.

The thing is, you’d never guess it if you watched last week’s Republican debate. Just a handful of candidates chose to talk about drugs and drug policy, and even then the specifics were generally scarce. 

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who has regularly spoken in favor of drug policy reform, talked about the need for more rehabilitation and less incarceration. He acknowledged the intersection between race and drug policy, telling the crowd, “I think that the war on drugs has had a racial outcome and it’s something that’s really damaged our inner cities.” 

In terms of pot policy, he said he didn’t think the federal government should override the states, citing the Tenth Amendment and its limitation on federal powers. 

In the course of all that, the junior Kentucky senator took a jab at an unnamed candidate: “There is at least one prominent example on the stage of someone who says they smoked pot in high school, and yet the people going to jail for this are poor people, often African-Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t.”

Though Paul would not initially name the hypocrite in question, Jeb Bush responded, “He’s talking about me.” The former Florida governor admitted—as he’s done before—to smoking pot as a teen. He went on to mention the heroin problem in New Hampshire and endorsed more drug treatment through drug courts, bragging that Florida has more of them than any other state. (He did not mention that it also has the third-highest prison population.)

Paul pointed out that Bush has opposed even medical marijuana and added, “Under the current circumstances, kids who had privilege like you do, don’t go to jail, but the poor kids in our inner cities go to jail.”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie jumped in to frame drug policy reform as a pro-life issue, saying that the life of a “16-year-old drug addict in the Florida county lockup” is also important and boasting about his state’s approach to drug policy.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina put in her two cents, speaking about the ills of marijuana like a modern-day Reefer Madness promo.

“We are misleading young people,” she said, “when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It’s not. And the marijuana that kids are smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago.”

However, she also connected with the topic of addiction on a more personal level when she reminded the crowd, “My husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction.” 

In all, it was not an enlightening conversation. We didn’t learn anything new about any of the candidates’ positions on drug policy and most of the potential GOP nominees just avoided that part of the discussion altogether. In all, it took up maybe 10 minutes of the three-hour debate. 

To be fair, the debate wasn’t actually designed to incite discussion on real issues; with rules allowing for a rebuttal anytime one candidate mentioned another, it was clearly designed to spark a fight. On that front, the candidates certainly delivered.  

When they weren’t busy trading insults, there were tons of other issues to address, from immigration to foreign policy to their preferred Secret Service codenames. (Aren’t you glad you know that Ben Carson wants to be called “One Nation”? Or that Mike Huckabee wants to be “Duck Hunter”? How could you possibly live without that knowledge?) Of course, with all those important (and unimportant) issues, the candidates couldn’t spend the entire debate talking about drugs and criminal justice. 

But most of them haven’t talked about it much on the campaign trail, either. 

Some—like Paul—have made drug policy a regular talking point, but many haven’t said much of anything. Even Fiorina, who has repeatedly spoken about her step-daughter’s death, hasn’t offered substantive details about what that means for drug policy in a Fiorina presidency. 

In May, she told reporters that “drug addiction shouldn’t be criminalized” and on Thursday she told CNN: “The war on drugs has failed.” She voiced support for drug treatment and for criminal justice reform, but did not offer specifics. Does she plan for mass clemency? Will she begin making drug felonies into misdemeanors? Will she further reduce the crack/powder sentencing disparity? Or does she just think that broader use of drug courts is enough to solve our nation’s drug—and prison—problem? 

These are questions most of the candidates have failed to answer. Why? 

There might be a few possible answers. Maybe they’re still afraid to look soft on crime. Maybe they’re truly in favor of reform and are afraid it won’t play well with the base. Maybe they’re strongly against reform and are afraid it won’t play well in the general election. 

Or maybe they’re just not willing to stand up for drug addicts. They’re not alone on this; this still reflects attitudes that are prevalent in some quarters. (If you have any doubts about this, check the comment section of almost any news article about a drug arrest.)

It’s an unfortunate reflection on the way in which society is still willing to discard addicts. For years, we’ve dealt with drug users by locking them up and throwing away the key. Increasingly, criminal justice reforms have meant that we’re more willing to retrieve the key, but we’re still locking up far too many in the first place. (Of the more than 2 million people in American prisons and jail, some 65% meet the criteria for substance abuse.) 

Plus, even if we do let them out, by locking them up we’ve really still discarded them anyway. Once they’ve got a record, they’re not eligible for public assistance in some states, they can’t live in public housing, they can be discriminated against in hiring and housing, and they may lose the right to vote. Essentially, they’re discarded from full membership in society. 

As drug policy and broader criminal justice reforms have begun to take hold in some areas, that’s all started to change. But, clearly there are a lot of politicians who still don’t think it’s cool to stand up for addicts. 

Somewhere around 8% of Americans aged 12 and older use illegal drugs and around 20% use prescription drugs for non-medical uses. On top of that, 10% of the adult population says that they used to have a substance abuse problem but do not anymore. 

These are not negligible numbers. Drug users are not a small demographic. And they should not be discarded or ignored.

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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.