Rand Paul Gives His Lengthiest Answer Yet About the Drug War

This morning on Fox News Sunday Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
gave his most extensive answer yet on how he feels about U.S. drug
laws. The short version: He doesn’t endorse legalizing drugs, but
he also doesn’t want to lock up nonviolent offenders for “extended
periods of time.” 

Here’s the video, followed by the transcript: 

Chris Wallace: Are you more lenient on drug
laws, sir?

Rand Paul: The main thing I’ve said is not to
legalize them, but not to incarcerate people for extended period of
times. So I’m working with Sen. Leahy and we have a bill on
mandatory minimums. There are people in jail for 37, 50, 45 years
for nonviolent crimes. And that’s a huge mistake. Our prisons are
full of nonviolent criminals.  

I don’t want to encourage people to do it. I think even
marijuana is a bad thing to do. I think it takes away your
incentive to work and show up and do the things you should be
doing. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t want to promote
that, but I also don’t want to put people in jail who make a
mistake. There are a lot of young people who do this and then later
on in their 20s they grow up and get married and quit doing things
like this. I don’t want to put them in jail and ruin their
lives.

Look, the last two presidents could conceivably have been put in
jail for their drug use. And I really think look what would have
happened: It would have ruined their lives. They got lucky, but a
lot of poor kids, particularly in the inner city, don’t get lucky,
they don’t have good attorneys and they go to jail for these things
and I think it’s a big mistake.

Chris Wallace: [Laughing] I actually think it
would be the last three presidents, but who’s counting?

Paul’s right to point out that Presidents Barack Obama and
George W. Bush would likely not be presidents had they served time
for illicit drug use; right to
argue that mandatory minimums are a colossal failure
; and
right(ish) to demonstrate how social conservatives can support
reducing the size of the incarceration state without condoning
activities that they and their constituents disapprove
of. 

All that said, there’s another way to look at Paul’s statements
on Fox (and at CPAC), and that’s in the context of what other
Republicans and conservatives are saying. If you compare Paul only
to his colleagues in the Senate, yes, he sounds like a pioneer. But
if you broaden the comparison to include Republicans outside the
Senate, Paul is coming late to this way of thinking. Former drug
warriors Newt Gingrich, Ed Meese, Asa Hutchinson, and Bill Bennet

have all come out against
 incarcerating low-level
nonviolent drug offenders. Republican Governors
Dennis Daugaard
of South Dakota,
Nathan Deal
of Georgia, Chris
Christie
of New Jersey, and
John Kasich
of Ohio have not only come out against imprisoning
low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, they’ve signed legislation
that diverts more of those offenders from prison into community
supervision programs. Conservative state-level think tanks across
the country–from Right on Crime in Texas, to the James Madison
Institute in Florida–are pushing for alternative sentencing. Hell,
even gay-bashing televangelist Pat Robertson
beat Paul to this conclusion
. 

Yet based on Wallace’s and Paul’s exchange, you’d think Paul is
the only Republican in America who doesn’t want to put nonviolent
drug offenders in prison for half a century. Why does Paul’s
answer somehow feel like he was edging dangerously close to the
third rail? Probably because when it comes to drug policy, the only
institution that’s further out of step with the rest of America
than the U.S. Senate is the cable news industry.