Last week I noted that Rand Paul, since being elected to the Senate, has shied away from calling for the legalization of marijuana or other drugs, although he has said that drug policy should be handled mostly by the states. As Tom Angell points out, Paul made bolder comments on the subject during a 2000 TV appearance (below), although not quite as bold as some people claim. Paul, at the time chairman of Kentucky Taxpayers United, was responding to the following suggestion from a caller to the public affairs show Kentucky Tonight:
My plan is to legalize all drugs and take the money that we spend to keep the drugs out of the country, put that into Social Security, and release all nonviolent drug offenders…take the money that we would spend in housing these inmates, put that into Social Security. Now that money is going to end the money problems with Social Security. I would like to hear you guys comment on that.
Here is how Paul responded:
I would agree with him. I think they are sort of separate issues, and obviously you can take the savings from one. But I would agree with him: The war on drugs is an abysmal failure and a waste of money. And we should better spend [the money] dealing with people, with their addiction problems, quit wasting all the money, sending the military to Bolivia to shoot farmers who are growing coca plants. That's just ridiculous. So I do agree with him there: Just end that war on drugs and make it a much more local situation, more community oriented…There's probably a lot of savings in that.
That can be read as an endorsement of legalization, but it also can be read as similar to the position Paul has taken since he became a Senate candidate: devolve drug policy to state and local governments; emphasize rehabilitation rather than punishment. It all depends on what Paul meant by "end that war on drugs." For me that means repealing drug prohibition. But recall that Barack Obama, who as a Senate candidate in 2004 called the war on drugs an "utter failure," supposedly ended it in 2009. I suspect that Rand Paul in 2000 had in mind something closer to my idea of ending the war on drugs, but I can't prove it. Still, it is probably significant that Paul, unlike Obama, did not feel a need to say legalization is a bad idea.
Because Paul's 2000 comments are open to a wide range of interpretation, Ryan Lizza's gloss in The New Yorker is rather misleading:
In 2000, when a caller to "Kentucky Tonight" asked guests what they thought of a plan to legalize all drugs, release all nonviolent drug offenders, and use the savings to fix Social Security, Paul responded, "I would agree."
I think exactly what Paul agreed with is not clear, especially when you consider how prohibitionists like Obama have appropriated the language of reform. But even if Paul never explicitly endorses legalization, it may not matter, as long as he is prepared to take a genuinely federalist approach to drug policy, which would mean that national prohibition does not apply in states that decide to go a different way.