Rand Paul Says States Should Be Free to Legalize Pot


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) addresses drug policy in an interview with CNN's Jonathan Karl:

The legalization of marijuana is another issue that Paul points to as a way for the GOP to reach more young voters.

Paul himself does not favor legalizing marijuana, but he says individual states—such as Washington and Colorado, which both voted to legalize in November—should be allowed to make marijuana legal.

"States should be allowed to make a lot of these decisions," Paul says. "I want things to be decided more at a local basis, with more compassion. I think it would make us as Republicans different."

He also says legal penalties for marijuana should be relaxed.

"I think, for example, we should tell young people, 'I'm not in favor of you smoking pot, but if you get caught smoking pot, I don't want to put you in jail for 20 years,'" Paul says.

Paul's support for devolving drug policy decisions to the states is pretty bold in the current political context. It is the policy embodied in the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011, which was co-sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). How many of their fellow congressmen joined them? Nineteen, all but one (Dana Rohrabacher of California) a Democrat.

Rand Paul, who was elected to the Senate in 2010, has been advocating a federalist approach to drug policy for years. In October 2009, for example, he told reporters "most policies of crime and punishment should be and are addressed at the state level," adding, "I would favor a more local approach to drugs." The following month The New York Times reported that "Dr. Paul believes that federal authorities should stay out of drug enforcement." Both Trey Grayson, Paul's opponent in the Republican primary, and Jack Conway, his Democratic opponent in the general election, accused him of being soft on drugs. Paul faced similar charges after he took office, when he blocked bills aimed at banning fake pot, pseudo-speed, and the synthetc psychedelic 2C-E, arguing that the potential sentences were too harsh and that "enforcement of most drug laws can and should be local and state issues" (as his spokeswoman put it). For a Republican with presidential aspirations (which Rand admits having in the CNN interview), this is courageous stuff, even if Rand's hold ultimately succeeded only in avoiding a new 20-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Rand's opposition to long prison terms for smoking pot is not so bold, especially since people do not serve long prison terms for smoking pot, except in highly unusual situations. Until it was revised by an initiative passed two weeks ago, for example, California's "three strikes" law allowed a life term (with parole possible after 25 years) for marijuana possession charged as a felony following two convictions for "serious or violent" crimes. But that is hardly a typical scenario for the hundreds of thousands of pot smokers arrested every year, who generally do not spend significant time in jail (although they still suffer the humiliation, inconvenience, expense, and long-lasting ancillary penalties associated with a misdemeanor drug charge). Furthermore, most Americans (including Sarah Palin and Bill O'Reilly!) oppose putting pot smokers in jail for any length of time, and I've never heard even the hardest of hard-line drug warriors in the U.S. advocate anything like 20 years for simple marijuana possession.

Such a policy harks back to the marijuana penalties of half a century ago. In 1966, for instance, Timothy Leary got a 30-year sentence (ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court) under the old Marihuana Tax Act for crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. with a tiny amount of cannabis. Back then the states also treated marijuana possession as a felony, meaning pot smokers could be sentenced to years in prison for personal-use quantities. That is no longer the case, and reformers should not pretend it is; there is no shortage of draconian drug sentences to condemn without getting into the Wayback Machine.

Still, Rand has staked out a clear and consistent position in favor of less federal involvement in drug law enforcement and less severe penalties. With his father gone next year, he and Rohrabacher may be the only Republicans in Congress who are prepared to criticize the Obama administration for interfering with marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington (assuming that is the course the Justice Department takes). Given Paul's record, I was rather dismayed to find no criticism of the war on drugs in his new bookGovernment Bullies: How Everyday Americans Are Being Harassed, Abused, and Imprisoned by the Feds. Perhaps in a future edition.