Is Rick Perry 'More Liberal' on Marijuana Than Barack Obama?


Office of the Governor

During a drug policy panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, today, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said states have a right to go their own way on marijuana, although he personally continues to oppose legalization. "I am a staunch promoter of the 10th Amendment," Perry said, explaining that states should be free to set their own policies in areas such as abortion, gay marriage, and marijuana, and "then people will decide where they want to live." At the same time, he declared that Texans "certainly would never jump out in front of the parade" toward legalization, although he said he supports "policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keep people from going to prison and destroying their lives," which is "what we've done over the last decade."

What Perry means by "decriminalization" is pretty much what New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie means when he says he will "end the failed war on drugs": giving nonviolent drug offenders a choice between a treatment slot and a prison cell. In other words, it's not really decriminalization, which at the very least means eliminating criminal penalties for users, not using those penalties as a hammer to reform them against their will—which is also what Barack Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, had in mind when he declared that "we certainly ended the drug war."

Still, Perry's federalism is one of the few things I like about him, although I would argue that he is not quite as committed to that principle as he claims to be. U.S. News reporter Steven Nelson says Perry's willingness to let 50 cannabis flowers bloom (or not, as the case may be) is "a more liberal position than the one held by the Obama administration," since "the Justice Department said in August it will conditionally allow Colorado and Washington to open state-licensed stores, but reserved the right to shut them down for violating federal law."

Nelson has a point, although President Obama's recent comments about legalization in Colorado and Washington suggest he is willing to learn from state policy experiments even if he is also prepared to squash them. Yesterday White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama, who told The New Yorker "it's important" for legalization in those states "to go forward,"  is "not endorsing any specific move by a state." Rather, "he's talking about the issue of disparities in prosecution of our drug laws that an experiment like this may be addressing." For now, at least, the laboratories of democracy are up and running.