DRUGS ARE BAD for you, no question. But wars on drugs are worse — at least the way we’ve been waging this battle. But change may be coming, and from the least likely source: the right wing. Just as it took Richard Nixon to reopen ties with China (a Democrat would have been pilloried as a commie sympathizer), so it may take conservatives to reform our nation’s drug and sentencing laws.
Rand Paul, a Republican, is the son of libertarian and former US representative Ron Paul, whose two runs for president inspired much enthusiasm, albeit few votes. The son is a senator from Kentucky; he’s more moderate than his father and is in the mix for the 2016 GOP nomination. One might think drug policy low on a conservative’s priority list. But Rand is one of those leading the charge for change.
Last month, he and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (a rising Democratic star) jointly unveiled a plan, called the REDEEM Act, to limit employers’ access to nonviolent criminal records. The bill, designed to reduce the stigma that makes ex-cons often unemployable, comes in the context that most nonviolent offenses are drug-related.
That proposal follows on the heels of another Paul initiative, one that would wipe out the disparity in the way we treat cocaine and crack. Crack is cocaine that, through the magic of baking soda, has been made smokeable. Overhyped fears about its spread caused Congress in 1986 to make crack-related penalties 100 times harsher than those for ordinary cocaine. The disparity was nonsense and — if not by intent then by effect — racist: Cocaine was popular with upper-class whites (see, for example, “The Wolf of Wall Street”), while crack was more common in urban black communities. While 2010 saw improvements pushed by the Obama administration — the disparity was reduced to 18 to 1 — treating the two differently makes no sense.
This isn’t merely about fairness, however. It’s also part of a dawning recognition that the lock-’em-up mentality of the war on drugs has failed. Almost half of federal inmates are there for drug-related offenses. That penchant for imprisoning — 2.2 million Americans at this point — makes us the most incarcerated country in the world. Moreover, the $51 billion we spend each year has done little to stanch the use of illegal drugs. As Esquire observed last year: “The war on drugs is over. Drugs won.”
This refrain has long been a liberal trope. But coming from a Republican such as Rand Paul, it’s unexpected. Paul’s not alone, however. Irascible Newt Gingrich wrote in 2011 about the “huge costs in dollars and lost human potential” of excessive imprisonment. “The war on drugs, while well-intentioned, has been a failure,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said in a 2012 speech to the Brookings Institute. Evangelist Pat Robertson is now skeptical as well. And Texas’ Rick Perry, also a GOP presidential prospect, earlier this year decried imprisonment and urged the use of drug courts.
Why? Some think of mass incarceration as just another form of big government, one that intrudes too deeply into people’s lives. Others, including Paul, see it in terms of federalism: Let the states handle it. Practicality enters into the equation too. It makes sense to focus on what works, such as targeted behavioral interventions to discourage drug abuse, rather than waste money on what doesn’t.
Then, too, there is the calculus of electoral politics. Harsh, punitive policies against drugs disproportionately affect black and brown communities — the fastest growing communities in America. Republicans can do math as well as anyone. At the same time, public attitudes are shifting. The growing sentiment to legalize marijuana is but a harbinger of broader disagreement with the entire war-on-drugs philosophy.
Whatever the motives — enlightenment or the mere hunt for votes — the shift in conservative attitudes should be welcomed. As Booker and Paul’s joint appearances testify, drug policy is emerging as one case where true bipartisanship may be possible.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org