Gross Hypocrisy: Where the Top 9 Republican Presidential Candidates Stand on Pot
In 2014, a staggering 84 percent of Americans said the government was losing the war on drugs. Even political conservatives, once reliable hardliners on U.S. drug policy despite overwhelming evidence of its futility, have finally acknowledged that the cost of the drug war has far exceeded any benefits. At last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Christopher Beach — producer of the conservative talk radio show "Morning in America" — conceded that drugs just don’t rile the Republican base the way they once did. “There used to be a strong conservative coalition opposed to drugs, but it's dissipated in the face of mounting public support for legalization," Beach told the Atlantic. "We're fighting against the tide on this."
It’s only taken “small government” advocates nearly 45 years, countless destroyed communities and $1 trillion in federal funding to recognize the drug war has been an expensive, devastating failure. (Which is not to take credit from Democratic President Bill Clinton, who escalated the war to unprecedented levels.) The policy has mostly succeeded in achieving the most shameful example of American exceptionalism: We now jail more of our citizens — in both number and percentage — than any other country on the planet, and our drug laws have proven especially punitive for African Americans and Latinos. In this case, we are, as we’re often told to believe, indeed number one. But for the worst reasons.
Looking specifically at pot-related arrests, as the Huffington Post did, reveals how the numbers defy reason and justification.
Marijuana offenses account for roughly half of all drug-related offenses, and most of those are for simple possession. According to a recent report on marijuana arrests from the American Civil Liberties Union, of the more than 8 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were for just being in possession of the drug. In 2011, according to the FBI's uniform crime report, there were more arrests in the U.S. for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined.
But the tide is slowly changing. Perhaps owing to the fact that more Americans than ever now report they’ve tried pot, support for legalization is now at an all-time high. Twenty-three states now have legalized medical marijuana, 16 have decriminalized the drug and four — Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska — have made pot legal. Republican candidates for president have, out of political necessity, adjusted with the times and public sentiment. Mostly, that is.
What follows is a look at where the leading Republican presidential candidates stand on pot. Who’s still advocating mandatory minimums and who’s pushing for drug law reform? Who’s trying to stop medical marijuana and who’s behind it all the way? Who’s probably still really good at rolling joints and has a last name that rhymes with “kush”? Check out the list below.
1. Jeb Bush.
At the very least, John Ellis Bush smoked pot with some regularity in high school; there’s a preponderance of evidence that suggests he was actually a full-on stoner. Bush himself has acknowledged the former multiple times, including at the most recent Republican debate, where he said, “Forty years ago, I smoked marijuana, and I admit it.” In a lengthy piece on his secondary school years that ran in the Boston Globe this February, he stated, “I drank alcohol and I smoked marijuana when I was at Andover,” noting that it was “pretty common.”
That same piece also points toward the latter: that Bush was actually a fairly prolific weed smoker in his youth. Classmates say he smoked a “notable amount of pot,” an offense that could get you expelled from Phillips Academy were your last name not Bush. (One former Bush roommate told the paper, “There wasn’t anything he could do to be kicked out so he was relaxed about rules, doing the work. This was just his family’s place.”) That includes a Bush classmate who claims the first time he “really got stoned” on hash “was in Jeb’s room.” His description of the situation is like something out of a movie called Almost Comically Stereotypical Scenes from the 1960s. “He had a portable stereo with removable speakers,” the friend told the Globe. “He put on [Steppenwolff’s “Magic Carpet Ride”] for me.”
Nonetheless, as Florida governor, Bush took a highly punitive stance on drug use. And while he has given tepid support to medical marijuana on the campaign trail, saying it is “the right of states to decide,” he fought vigorously against it in his home state. Think Progress documents how Bush “opposed treatment instead of jail for nonviolent drug users, and backed mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession offenses, even as his daughter faced jail time over a drug rehabilitation relapse.” (Noelle Bush, arrested for crack possession in 2003, served less than two weeks in jail before later completing rehab.) In August of last year, he “strongly urged” voters to oppose a measure legalizing medical marijuana, stating the bill would destroy Florida’s reputation as a “world-class,” “family friendly,” “desirable place to raise a family or retire.” “[U]nder the guise of using [pot] for medicinal purposes,” Bush suggested, marijuana would spread like wildfire across the state. The bill ultimately went down in flames.
2. Rand Paul.
Though Rand Paul is pretty terrible on an awful lot of things, he is, by leagues, the sanest and most progressive voice on drug policy in the 2016 Republican pack. This may seem unsurprising considering the old cliche about Libertarians being Republicans who like to smoke pot. But Paul has gone beyond talking about “states' rights”and medical marijuana, criticizing the failure of the war on drugs and its disproportionate impact on Latino and African American communities and calling for reform of the criminal justice system.
He has also been very happy to point out the boundless hypocrisy of Jeb Bush’s position, and to use the story of Bush’s high school years as a case in point about how drug laws are unequally enforced. Is this political opportunism? Absolutely. That doesn’t make it any less true.
“There is at least one prominent example on the stage of someone who says they smoked pot in high school,” Paul stated at the Republican debate earlier this month, calling Bush out by everything but his name, “and yet the people going to — to jail for this are poor people, often African Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t.”
Paul has advocated for an overhaul of federal drug legislation and an end to mass incarceration. “The war on drugs has had a racial outcome and really has been something that has damaged our inner cities,” he said at the aforementioned debate. “Not only do drugs damage [offenders], we damage them again by incarcerating them and then preventing them from getting unemployment over time."
3. Donald Trump.
As with nearly every other issue under the sun, Donald Trump has done a complete 180 on pot. Back in 1990, the billionaire was advocating for the wholesale abolition of all drug laws, which he pilloried as “a joke.”
“We’re losing badly the war on drugs,” Trump said at a luncheon held by the Miami Herald. “You have to legalize drugs to win that war ... You have to take the profit away from these drug czars ... What I’d like to do maybe by bringing it up is cause enough controversy that you get into a dialogue on the issue of drugs so people will start to realize that this is the only answer; there is no other answer.”
But more recently, Trump suggested states that have legalized pot will face consequences for doing so. “I think it’s bad and I feel strongly about that,” he said at CPAC this year. “They’ve got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado, some big problems.”
And like nearly every other Republican contender, he evoked “states’ rights” on the question of whether federal drug laws should be enforced across the country. "If they vote for it, they vote for it,” Trump said. He’s also more enthusiastically supports medical marijuana than most of his rivals, stating, “I think medical marijuana, 100 percent."
Trump — who in his 2000 book The America We Deserve wrote that he has “never taken drugs of any kind, never had a glass of alcohol. Never had a cigarette, never had a cup of coffee” — has also pounced on Jeb Bush’s drug past. Not to call for substantive policy change (this is Trump we’re talking about here) but to suggest that Bush is still getting high these days. Donald Trump: Professional Troll.
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4. Ben Carson.
If you’ve heard anything Ben Carson has said for, oh, the last several years, you might guess — correctly — that he is very not pro-pot. Though he concedes that medical marijuana isn’t just a liberal scheme to get joints into the hands of babies, Carson clings to the old idea that today’s pot smoker is tomorrow’s dope fiend. In an interview with Greta Van Susteren last year, when asked about the legalization of pot, Carson discussed his fear that marijuana was unraveling the moral fabric of America.
“Medical use of marijuana in compassionate cases certainly has been proven to be useful. But recognize that marijuana is what’s known as a gateway drug. It tends to be a starter drug for people who move onto heavier duty drugs — sometimes legal, sometimes illegal. I don’t think this is something we really want for our society. You know, we’re gradually just removing all the barriers to hedonistic activity. We’re changing so rapidly to a different type of society. And nobody is getting a chance to discuss it. Because it’s taboo; it’s politically incorrect.”
In fact, numerous studies find that this simply isn’t true. A report from the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy finds that while “scientific evidence suggests that cannabis use often precedes the use of “harder” illicit drugs ... there is no evidence to suggest that the use of cannabis causes or increases the risk that an individual will move on to use other drugs.” And the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the federal scientific research arm of the National Institutes of Health, reinforces this finding, and points out that lots of other substances could also be identified as “gateways” to drug abuse. “[M]ost people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, 'harder' substances,” the agency writes on its website. “Also, cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs and are, like marijuana, also typically used before a person progresses to other, more harmful substances.”
5. Carly Fiorina.
During the most recent Republican debate, Carly Fiorina stated, “We are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having beer. It's not. And the marijuana that kids are smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago.”
Sure, today’s pot is, indeed, stronger than yesteryear’s. She’s basically right there. But her insinuation that pot is more dangerous than alcohol is just wrong. Citing a 2014 study that examined 20 years of research on recreational pot use, the Washington Post notes that “[p]eople who try marijuana are significantly less likely to become dependent on it than users of just about any other drug, including...alcohol,” and that 90 percent of those who try pot never develop an addiction. A recent Vox piece points out that “[w]hile zero people have reportedly died from a marijuana overdose ever, alcohol poisoning kills more than 2,200 people in the U.S. each year (and that's a small part of the 88,000 alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. annually).” Alcohol is linked to up to 30 percent of violent crimes, while pot actually reduces the odds of violent behavior. Another study, also highlighted by the Washington Post, finds that marijuana is “roughly 114 times less deadly than booze.”
The debate wasn’t the last time Fiorina would make inaccurate statements about pot. At a recent event in Iowa, Fiorina said her doctor had inquired if she might be interested in medical marijuana after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. “I said ‘No,’ and his response was ‘Good,’” Fiorina told the audience, “because it’s a chemically complex compound that we do not understand — we do not understand how it reacts with chemotherapy and all of the other [treatments],” she said.
Except, actually, that isn’t true today, and we’ve known it isn’t true for years. As Factcheck.org notes, multiple studies conducted both before and after 2009 have examined how pot interacts with other drugs, finding “few problems in terms of interactions with cancer therapies, as well as other types of medication.” The site also points out that “studies have shown that cannabinoids do in fact interact with [some] cancer drugs — synergistically, meaning they actually add to the beneficial effects.”
What’s more, according to the National Cancer Institute, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “[s]tudies in mice and rats have shown that cannabinoids may inhibit tumor growth by causing cell death, blocking cell growth, and blocking the development of blood vessels needed by tumors to grow” and that “[l]aboratory and animal studies have shown that cannabinoids may be able to kill cancer cells while protecting normal cells.”
6. Ted Cruz.
What sounds like a confession coming from most politicians almost seems like a desperate attempt to seem like something approximating cool coming from Cruz.
“Teenagers are often known for their lack of judgment, and Senator Cruz was no exception,” a Cruz spokesperson stated to the U.K.’s Daily Mail. “When he was a teenager, he foolishly experimented with marijuana. It was a mistake, and he's never tried it since.”
Sure. Anyway, as Cruz’s standard m.o. is to figure out where Obama stands on an issue and then attack that position, in 2014 the Texas senator called the president’s decision not to enforce federal drug laws in Washington and Colorado “fundamentally dangerous to the liberty of the people.” He also said, “Anyone who is concerned about liberty should be concerned about the notion that this president over and over again has asserted the right to pick and choose what laws to follow.”
Ted Cruz could give a rat's ass about liberty these days, it seems, because he’s done a complete about-face on the issue in the last year. This is less likely the result of a heartfelt change than it is yet more proof of Cruz’s cynicism and political cravenness. A 2014 Gallup survey finds a slight majority of Americans support pot legalization, and most Republican millennials, 63 percent, favor legalization — numbers Cruz’s campaign team is undoubtedly familiar with.
Cruz was suddenly all for states rights on marijuana when he appeared at CPAC earlier this year. “I actually think this is a great embodiment of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the laboratories of democracy,” he said, according to the Washington Post. “If the citizens of Colorado decide they want to go down that road, that’s their prerogative. I don’t agree with it, but that’s their right.”
7. Mike Huckabee.
Back in the 1970s, while other kids his age were toking and snorting anything they could get their hands on, 17-year-old Mike Huckabee was apparently prepping for a run for city council in Beaumont, the town from "Footloose." Meaning Huckabee, who at the time wrote a column for an Arkansas-based paper called the Baptist Trumpet, spent his time warning other teens about the evils of dancing, smoking, dating non-Christians and soap operas (“In a 30-minute segment, you can witness the breaking of almost every commandment God has established”).
Not much has changed with Huckabee since then, except that he’s gotten a lot less earnest and a lot more invested in saying despicable things to get attention. Huckabee isn’t so much of a states' rights kind of candidate; he says he would leave enforcement of federal drug laws “up to the DEA.” Though neither a doctor nor a scientist, he also stated, “I think there are better ways to treat medical illnesses than the use of a drug that has really caused so many more people to have their lives injured than it has to necessarily have their lives helped.”
8. Marco Rubio.
According to Marco Rubio, there are two very good reasons why he refuses to answer the question of whether he’s ever smoked marijuana: First, because if he says no, people will accuse him of lying. Second, because if he says yes, “[K]ids will look up to me and say, ‘Well, I can smoke marijuana, ‘cause look how he made it. He did all right, so I guess I can do it, too.’” My guess is that Rubio is deeply misguided about his sway over America’s youth.
Multiple times, and in various venues, Rubio has said that he believes federal drug laws should be upheld across the country. In 2014, he told ABC News, “Marijuana is illegal under federal law. That should be enforced.” This past April, appearing on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, when asked if he would “shut down the marijuana trade” in Washington and Colorado, he answered affirmatively. “Yes, I think, well, I think we need to enforce our federal laws. Now do states have a right to do what they want? They don’t agree with it, but they have their rights. But they don’t have a right to write federal policy...I don’t believe we should be in the business of legalizing additional intoxicants in this country for the primary reason that when you legalize something, what you’re sending a message to young people is it can’t be that bad, because if it was that bad, it wouldn’t be legal.”
Rubio has talked about pot and alcohol as if they were one and the same (“I think this country is paying a terrible and high price for the impact that alcohol has had on families, and addiction, on the destruction of marriages, homes, and businesses, and now we’re going to legalize an additional intoxicant?”), implied that marijuana is dangerous under any circumnstances (“I don't believe there's a responsible way to recreationally use marijuana”), suggested there’s no need to reform drug laws that have led to mass incarceration (“I don’t think legalizing marijuana or even decriminalizing it is the right decision for our country”) and stated that he might be convinced to support medical marijuana — provided nobody’s getting any kind of a buzz off of it. (“If there are medicinal uses of marijuana that don't have the elements that are mind-altering or create the high but do alleviate whatever condition it may be they are trying to alleviate, that is something I would be open to.”)
9. Chris Christie.
During the most recent Republican debate, when the issue of pot came up, Christie stated, “In New Jersey, we have medical marijuana laws, which I supported and implemented.”
But that’s not exactly true. As NewsWorks’ Rob Tornoe notes, “[b]ack in 2009, Christie [stated] that he opposed a then-pending medical marijuana bill on the basis that it was too lax. That bill would later be signed into law by his predecessor, Jon Corzine, leaving Christie to drag his feet on implementation.”
Vocativ cites an op-ed by Chris Goldstein, a spokesperson for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), in assessing the role the governor played in his state’s medical marijuana program. “In 2010 and 2011, Christie organized a severe over-regulation of the compassionate use law and delayed the implementation by years,” Goldstein wrote. This over-regulation, Vocativ points out, “included limiting the potency of the marijuana, the types of illnesses or ailments that qualify for medical marijuana and forcing doctors who prescribe it to register on lists maintained by the state, [and] was panned by the New Jersey State Assembly as ‘arbitrary and unnecessary.’ In March, the Assembly voted to rebuke certain regulations put in place by the Christie administration.”
[He] has called similar laws in 22 other states a "front" for full recreational legalization. He has characterized taxes generated from the sale of marijuana as "blood money." He threatened to veto a decriminalization measure in his home state. And earlier this year, in no uncertain terms, he said that if elected president, he would "crack down and not permit" recreational cannabis in states that have legalized it.
Just this past July, while stumping in New Hampshire, Christie reportedly stated, “If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it. As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws.”
Oddly, Christie has said that he thinks the war on drugs “has been a failure.” But his promise to recriminalize pot usage around the country seems an awful lot like he nevertheless wants to keep fighting that battle.
Dan Riffle, the director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, drives the point home in a quote to the Huffington Post. "Governor Christie is right that the war on drugs is a failure,” said Riffle. “But what he apparently doesn’t realize is there are more arrests and prosecutions for marijuana than for any other drug. The war on drugs begins and ends with marijuana."
In any case, for your viewing pleasure, here is a compilation of Christie pretending to spontaneously throw his coat jacket to his campaign aide.