Drug Policy

Is Chris Dodd Only Two Notches Below Ron Paul on Drug Policy?

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At the Drug Policy Alliance's conference in New Orleans last week, I ran into someone from the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, which has prepared "The Anti-Prohibitionist Presidential Candidate Report Card." These ratings, which reflect the candidates' positions on a variety of drug policy issues, are an instructive contrast with the grades handed out by Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana, a group that focuses on the issue of federal interference with state policies regarding the medical use of cannabis. Not surprisingly, Ron Paul (along with Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich) gets an A+ from both groups. But Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who receive an A and an A?, respectively, on the medical marijuana issue, both get downgraded to a C when their other drug policy views are taken into account. So does Tom Tancredo, who garnered an A+ from Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana because he has clearly stated, on federalist grounds, that states should be allowed to go their own way on this issue. The leading Republicans—Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson—all get F's, although Thompson's grade is presumptive, since he "has thus far eluded the necessity of defining himself on drug and marijuana policy."

Notably, Christopher Dodd, who gets an A for his medical marijuana position, loses only a third of a grade on the broader measure, mainly because of his support for marijuana "decriminalization." I'm not sure the A? is deserved. Decriminalization means different things to different people, and in Dodd's case he seems to have in mind something pretty similar to the status quo. When Bill Marr asked him for "a good reason why, in a free and fair society, marijuana ought to be illegal," here is what Dodd said:

I've taken the position, certainly with medical use of marijuana, that it ought to be allowed. I think 12 of 13 states allow that today. In fact, we just had a huge debate in the committee in which I serve dealing with the issue, and I strongly advocated that these states not be biased or prejudiced  because they allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes….Decriminalization, I strongly advocate as well. We're cluttering up our prisons when we draw distinctions—let me go beyond marijuana—in terms of crack cocaine and powder cocaine, where we have differentials in prison sentences. So I would decriminalize, or certainly advocate as president the decriminalization of statutes that would incarcerate or severely penalize people for using marijuana. But I want to be careful, and I know there are a lot of people across the political spectrum who would just totally legalize it. I would not go that far.

Although marijuana offenses (overwhelmingly simple possession) account for two-fifths of drug arrests, people in the U.S. generally are not incarcerated merely for using marijuana. In the states that are commonly said to have "decriminalized" possession of marijuana in small quantities, jail is not even a theoretical possibility. But it's not as if the rest are sentencing pot smokers to prison left and right. So depending on how you define "severely penalize" (the collateral sanctions suffered by people arrested for marijuana possession seem pretty severe to me), Dodd is not necessarily calling for any change in existing policy. At best, I think, he is saying that all the states should follow the 11 "decrim" states by eliminating the possibility of jail for minor marijuana possession and setting a modest fine as the maximum official punishment. That would be an improvement, especially if possession for personal use were treated as a citable offense instead of a misdemeanor. But people who grow pot (even for personal use), distribute it (even for free), or possess more than the legal limit would still be subject to criminal penalties.

And let's not forget offenses involving all the other illegal substances, which account for most of the people in prison on drug charges. It seems strange to put Dodd, who presumably would leave the laws applying to these drugs essentially unchanged (except for rejiggering cocaine sentencing), only two notches below Paul, who wants to repeal drug prohibition outright.