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.