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Where do the GOP Candidates Stand on Drug Policy? Why Now is the Time to Know

The battle for the Republican nomination has moved to Florida, which also happens to be a key battleground in an entirely different fight: the $15bn war on drugs.

 The battle for the Republican nomination has moved to Florida this week, which also happens to be a key battleground in an entirely different fight: the $15bn federally-waged war on  drugs.

Passed in July of last year, a controversial law requires the state's welfare recipients to submit to drug testing – and to pay for the costs of the screening. Nearly 1,600 applicants refused to submit to the testing last year, while over 7,000 took the test and passed. Thirty-two of the applicants failed, the majority of whom tested positive for marijuana.

The law was temporarily blocked in October, but required testing for federal aid has become a hot-button issue in drug policy debates, and has received the explicit endorsement of  Newt Gingrich. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of a 35-year-old single father who objected to the legislation, arguing the law violated his 4th amendment rights

With more than 100,000 inmates, the Sunshine State's prison system is the third largest in the country, and costs $2.1bn a year to maintain, according to Julie Ebenstein, policy and advocacy counsel with Florida's chapter of the ACLU.

Ebenstein believes that inmates serving time for drug charges would be better – and more affordably – served by treatment rather than spending time behind bars.

In addition to devastating countless families, Ebenstein argues the drug war in Florida has amounted to a massive misappropriation of taxpayer dollars – an injustice that often resonates among conservative voters.

"The tough on crime policies have neither abated crime nor abated drug use," Ebenstein argues. They have instead, "burdened the state with these huge increasing costs of prisons."

The issue of drug policy has not come up much in the debates so far, but each of the four remaining Republican candidates – Gingrich,  Mitt RomneyRick Santorum and Ron Paul – has addressed it in some form in the past. A primer on where they stand:

Newt Gingrich

As House Speaker, Gingrich introduced the Drug Importer Death Penalty Act of 1996, which would have legalized the execution of any person caught smuggling drugs into the US more than once, so long as the individual carried 100 or more doses (an ounce of high-grade marijuana could conceivably qualify). First time offenders would have faced life in prison and defendants would have a window of just 18 months to file their one and only appeal.

While the law did not pass, Gingrich  expressed his support for, in his own words, "very draconian" measures as recently as last year. In an interview with Yahoo News last November, Gingrich noted how "successful" Singapore has been in its response to drug trafficking.

"They've communicated with great intention that they intend to stop drugs from coming into their countries," Gingrich explained.

Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch Asia Division, has a different take. "Singapore routinely executes people for drug trafficking. They consider themselves as having about the harshest drug laws in the world," he said. "It's not something to be emulated."

Following in Singapore's footsteps, he pointed out, would require the US to send, "thousands and thousands of people to death sentences annually."

In addition to importing authoritarian models of criminal justice, Gingrich is an outspoken advocate of making it "expensive to be a drug user" by requiring federal aid applicants to submit to drug tests.

Of last year's major drug war initiatives, drug testing is "the principle issue," said Ethan Nadlemann, the executive director of Drug Policy Action, an organization that works across party lines to advocate for alternatives to the drug war.