2016: When Republican presidential candidates will finally take drug policy reform seriously

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
2016: When Republican presidential candidates will finally take drug policy reform seriously

Shortly after Mitt Romney clinched the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, he traveled to Colorado, where a reporter in Denver asked for his thoughts on medical marijuana. The conversation did not go well.

Romney scowled and cut reporter Shaun Boyd off midsentence.

“Aren’t there significant issues that you’d like to talk about?” he protested, looking uncomfortable as Boyd continued her questioning.

“This is significant in Colorado,” she replied. Indeed, it was. Six months later, on the same night that Romney lost his bid for the White House against President Barack Obama, Colorado voters would legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Washington state did the same, making them the first states in the nation to take such action.

But in that meeting two years ago, Romney didn’t want to talk about it. “The economy, the economy, the economy. The growth of jobs. The need to put people back to work. The challenges of Iran,” Romney told the Denver CBS reporter. “We’ve got enormous issues that we face, but you want talk about — go ahead — you want to talk about marijuana?”

It was a performance typical of the mainstream of the Republican Party. During its presidential primary process that year, illegal drugs rarely became an issue deemed worthy of serious discussion, and the only candidates who wanted to talk about sentencing reform and drug legalization were those on the party’s ideological fringes: Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who would go on to run on the Libertarian Party line.

But as Republicans approach another presidential campaign season, those who’ve given signs they will run are showing a much greater willingness to discuss drugs as a public policy issue worth a serious person’s time, heralding what many observers believe might actually be the first major right-of-center discussion about the government’s role in handling drug cases in years.

Republican governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Rick Perry of Texas have been actively pursuing approaches to tackling drug abuse in their states that emphasize treatment for addicts instead of prison time. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has partnered with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, on legislation to change how the federal criminal justice system treats drug users. This year, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz joined Paul as a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent drug crimes. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan — who had his wrists slapped by the Romney campaign for saying, as its vice presidential pick, that he supported a state’s right to legalize medical marijuana — is a House co-sponsor of a similar bill.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has endorsed several reform bills in the Senate related to drug and prison reform. (Photo: AP)

To be sure, none of these politicians has called for the outright legalization of any illegal drug, (although Paul has said that states should have the freedom to establish their own drug laws.) They have, however, expressed an eagerness to overhaul the nation’s approach to drug use, sponsoring legislation that moves away from the tough-on-crime model that has dominated GOP thinking on drugs ever since Richard Nixon announced the “war on drugs” in 1971.

That’s created an opening for a serious conversation about drug policy to be part of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

In New Jersey, Christie in particular has poured significant time and resources as governor into championing a program for the state that treats drug users as disease victims in need of treatment, instead of punishment. Since he was elected in 2010, Christie has advocated for drug courts that sentence nonviolent offenders to mandatory treatment programs in lieu of jail time. For help, he’s partnered with local community groups, drug rehabilitation centers and New Jersey churches to implement a plan to make access to drug treatment available throughout the state in cooperation with state government initiatives.

Last week, Christie spent several hours discussing the program with policymakers, treatment advocates and recovering drug addicts at a forum at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark. The summit, called "The Many Faces of Addiction: Ending the Stigma,” was designed to highlight how the reality of addiction differs from the stereotypical depiction of addicts. The event aimed to show that people from every race and socio-economic class suffer from drug addiction, and it featured testimonials from recovering users. Christie is also backing a campaign for former and current addicts to tell their own stories in an effort to show how widespread the problem is.

Christie said his interest in drug treatment programs stretches back to the mid-'90s, when he, as a county official, worked with an in-patient drug treatment center called Daytop Village. In May of this year, Christie said a close friend who had been addicted to pain killers died after ingesting a combination of pills and alcohol, a tragedy that he says made the campaign that much more personal.

“There but for the grace of God go I. That’s how I look at addiction,” Christie said at the summit, echoing his remarks from the spring.

“I’ve talked about it my whole public life, and we’ve been working on this literally since the first year of my governorship,” Christie said in an interview with Yahoo News while sitting in a church pew after the event. In particular, “what they were able to do with drug-addicted kids” is a topic he is “passionate” about, he said, referring to Daytop Village’s rehabilitation work.

For Christie, who has said repeatedly that he’s mulling a presidential run, the issue of addressing addiction is something he wants to see championed on the federal level.

“I think the idea that you destigmatize this problem — it is a disease — and you make treatment much more broadly available as an option for people instead of incarceration,” he said. “I think from a federal perspective you can approach it from that way, and I think you can approach it from a nonpartisan basis to come together to do that.”

There has been growing support among conservatives for exploring alternative responses to drug use. A group of well-known conservatives in 2010 launched the Right on Crime Initiative, which has support from  prominent (and in some cases, surprising) public figures on the right, including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and even Ed Meese, Ronald Reagan’s former U.S. attorney general and a staunch drug warrior.

The shift in tone on drugs is not merely happening on the right. State governments across the country have moved to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, and a number of states, including the District of Columbia, will vote on ballot measures to legalize the drug for recreational use this fall. On the federal level, President Barack Obama earlier this year announced a plan to offer clemency to thousands of nonviolent drug offenders currently locked in prison.

Attitudes nationwide are shifting as well. Last October, a Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans favors legalizing marijuana. In preparation for changes in policy, the marijuana industry hired its first lobbyist last year to urge Congress to set rules allowing banks to lend to businesses associated with the newly legal trade.

The growing popularity of criminal justice reform seems to have emboldened politicians to discuss the issue at length among conservative groups that don’t traditionally discuss issues related to drugs. In June, Christie took his message of redemption to a gathering of social conservatives at the annual Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conference where discussions are traditionally more dominated by gay marriage and abortion than how to get addicts off heroin. In his speech to the conference, Christie adopted the language of the anti-abortion movement to make his case, arguing that those who consider themselves “pro-life” ought to apply their beliefs to all stages of development.

"I believe if you're pro-life as I am you need to be pro-life for the whole life," Christie said. "What works is giving those people — nonviolent drug offenders, addicts — the ability to get the tools they need to deal with their disease.”

Rand Paul, too, has made a point of bringing a similar message to audiences on the right. In February, he was the keynote speaker at a dinner for the conservative American Principles Project, where he made his own case for drug reform. While campaigning for House and Senate candidates in Iowa this past year — a state that could be crucial to him if he runs for the Republican presidential nomination — Paul regularly discusses the topic, and he does it casually and with confidence.

As political winds have shifted, the lawmakers and state executives don’t seem to view their outspokenness on drug policy reform to be politically risky. And they’ve found social conservatives to be receptive to their message, Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition Chairman, told Yahoo News.

“When I talked to Gov. Christie about what he’s doing in the drug rehabilitation, for example, he’s working with a lot of faith-based ministries that are doing rehabilitation. We applaud that, and we think that’s the emphasis where it needs to be,” Reed said in an interview this summer. “Part of it is the recognition that in many cases these policies, most of which were adopted in the '80s, have not really worked. They’ve just led to warehousing nonviolent individuals who are not a threat to society. It’s also become a fiscal issue for a lot of states.”

But support for reform on the right stops at outright marijuana decriminalization and legalization, Reed said. That’s also the case for many elected officials.

Despite his declared passion for drug policy reform, Christie remains one of the most rigid of the potential 2016 contenders when it comes to the question of decriminalization and legalization, which he opposes. And his opposition to state initiatives to accomplish that — including efforts to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes — irk drug policy reform advocates who support his other efforts.

Marijuana smokers in New Jersey, Christie says, have a choice if they're caught using the drug: They can either enter a treatment program or face jail time.

“There’s not anything beyond door No. 3,” Christie said. “It’s one or the other, and I think that’s right.”

But marijuana decriminalization advocates argue that cannabis isn’t the same as heroin or methamphetamines, and not everyone who uses marijuana is an addict in need of treatment.

“While critiques of the War on Drugs are always welcomed, it is hard to take his comments seriously when you consider his record regarding sensible reforms to New Jersey’s marijuana laws,” Erik Altieri, a spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, wrote earlier this year in a critique of Christie's work on drug reform. "We appreciate the governor's sentiment and welcome him in joining the overwhelming majority of Americans who think the War on Drugs has failed, but his statements are merely political bluster until his rhetoric is matched by his actions."

Christie insists he is acting. But on marijuana, he said he’d “never” favor any form of legalization.

"These programs are not aimed at the person who once or twice smokes a joint at a rock concert. That’s not what we’re talking about here,” Christie said. “People use that as a straw man. It’s a ridiculous argument. I think decriminalization sends the wrong message to our kids, and I will never be in favor of it. I just won't.

The reason, Christie says, is because he sees marijuana as a “gateway drug” that could lead to the use of other, more dangerous substances. (Most scholars who study the relationship between marijuana use and hard drug abuse have concluded that while the two might be correlated, marijuana use does not necessarily increase the risk of further drug use.)

Although Christie and others hold the same line Romney did 2012 on the legality of marijuana, their comfort with discussing drug policy reforms and willingness to embrace them are novel. A discussion about efforts to combat drug abuse “should be” part of a presidential campaign, Christie said.

“If you go to any neighborhood in this country, you’re going to find families that are affected by drug abuse,” he said. “If it’s that pervasive around the country, presidential candidates better be talking about it and put forward their ideas for how they’re going to fix the problem. And I think people want to hear it.”