Republicans Soften Stance On Drug Addiction Over Decades

By McCarton Ackerman 02/11/16

When it comes to drug addiction and how to best address it, Republicans are now taking a drastically different approach than they did decades ago.

Republicans Soften Stance On Drug Addiction Over Decades
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Republican Party members including Gov. Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina and presidential hopeful Jeb Bush have all adopted a more compassionate, less punitive stance than the influential Republicans of the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s. Some of these differences can even be seen within the family. While Jeb Bush told supporters last month that, "We need to eliminate the stigmas and the barriers ... where they're not embarrassed to say that I have an illness that I am now on the road to recovery on," his brother, George W. Bush, created some of those very barriers by stating in his February 2002 speech that "if you're buying illegal drugs in America, it is likely that money is going to end up in the hands of terrorist organizations."

President George H.W. Bush addressed Americans in September 1989 by declaring that “we need more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors” for drug users, but Carly Fiorina stated last September that “we need criminal justice reform … it’s clearly not working.” And while Gov. Chris Christie spoke earlier this month about a “16-year-old heroin-addicted drug girl on the floor of the county lockup, I’m pro-life for her life,” President Ronald Reagan was far less sympathetic in August 1986, declaring that “we will refuse to let drug users blame their behavior on others.”

For many conservatives, it’s a welcome change in policy.

"We believe in personal responsibility, but we also believe in redemption," said Marc Levin, policy director for Right on Crime, a conservative justice reform project. "Thus, it is not inconsistent to believe that the use of illegal drugs is destructive and should be discouraged, but at the same time prison is generally not the answer."

Part of this change has to do with many of the Republican presidential hopefuls in this election being personally affected by drug addiction. Carly Fiorina, who ended her presidential bid Wednesday, lost a stepdaughter due to a drug overdose, while Ted Cruz’s half-sister passed away from the same fate. Jeb Bush’s daughter has endured very public struggles with drug abuse, while Dinald Trump has been open about the alcoholism of his brother.

But others are more skeptical about the different approach towards drug treatment. Curtis Marez, a professor at UC San Diego, said recovery from substance abuse “fits right in with conservative narratives of sin and redemption," thereby increasing the odds of developing a following under this platform.

“George W. Bush's stories about overcoming alcohol abuse with the help of God endeared him to his base. Bush also supported faith-based drug and alcohol treatment programs,” explained Marez. “This suggests a conservative model of treatment couched in terms of sin and salvation rather diseases and cures—which is in keeping with certain conservative ideas about religion and individual responsibility.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.