How Libertarian Is Rand Paul on Drug Policy?

More than any other major-party presidential candidate, but there's room for improvement.


Last week about 40 people paid at least $2,700 each to hear Rand Paul talk about drug policy during the National Cannabis Industry Association's conference at the Denver Convention Center. That "private briefing" made the Kentucky senator the first major-party presidential candidate to hold a fundraiser aimed at people in the marijuana business.

"We are now establishing ourselves as a true industry with a professional focus, and we have issues that we need to have dealt with on the federal level," Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, told The Washington Post. "We have candidates and elected officials who are seeing that need for reform." Tripp Keber, CEO of Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, a Denver-based manufacturer of marijuana products, called the fundraiser "a historical moment, that our industry is now working together with a presidential candidate."

That the candidate was a Republican may seem counterintuitive, but that it was Paul is hardly surprising. For years the self-described "libertarian-ish" conservative has been criticizing the war on drugs and recommending a state-centered approach to psychoactive substances. Among other things, that means states like Colorado are free to adopt policies that allow businesses like Keber's to flourish. Although Paul has refrained from endorsing marijuana legalization, he opposes federal interference with the industry, which is the biggest obstacle it currently faces.

Four days before his appearance at the cannabusiness conference, Paul received an A– in the Marijuana Policy Project's report card on 22 presidential candidates. It was the highest grade received by any candidate of either major party. "Sen. Paul has consistently supported states' rights to establish their own marijuana policies," MPP noted, "and he has been a vocal supporter of decriminalizing or reducing criminal penalties for those arrested for marijuana possession." The organization also noted Paul's sponsorship of the CARERS Act, which would make the federal ban on marijuana inapplicable to people who produce, distribute, or use the drug for medical purposes in compliance with state law. Another provision of the CARERS Act is aimed at eliminating federal barriers to banking services for state-licensed marijuana businesses, including those that serve recreational consumers.

Paul is also a vocal opponent of excessively harsh penalties for drug offenses, including marijuana possession, cultivation, and distribution. He has criticized Republican rivals who used marijuana with impunity in high school or college for continuing to support laws that result in hundreds of thousands of petty pot busts each year. Here is what Paul had to say about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in an interview with The Hill last January: "This is a guy who now admits he smoked marijuana, but he wants to put people in jail who do. I think that's the real hypocrisy, is that people on our side, which include a lot of people who made mistakes growing up, admit their mistakes but now still want to put people in jail for that."

Comments like those imply that Paul, at the very least, thinks possession of marijuana for personal use should be not be treated as a crime. Furthermore, the fact that he is happy to rub shoulders with (and take money from) people who make their living by selling cannabis-infused sodas and chocolates indicates that he does not view that line of work as disreputable or immoral. Yet Paul has repeatedly shied away from saying that marijuana should be legalized, limiting himself to saying that states should be free to legalize it if they decide that is the right thing to do.

"I'm not for having the federal government get involved," Paul told Roll Call after voters in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., approved legalization last November. "I really haven't taken a stand on…the actual legalization. I haven't really taken a stand on that, but I'm against the federal government telling them they can't."

The denationalization of drug policy is a consistent theme of Paul's comments on the subject, going back at least 15 years. During an appearance on the public affairs show Kentucky Tonight in 2000, when he was chairman of Kentucky Taxpayers United, Paul even seemed to agree that the entire federal war on drugs, not just the part of it aimed at marijuana, should be called off. He was responding to the following statement from a caller:

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.

Those remarks can be read as an endorsement of legalization, but they also can be read as similar to the position Paul has taken since he became a Senate candidate in 2009: 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 his first year in the White House.

Given the opportunity to retreat from his 2000 statement on Bill Maher's HBO show last November, Paul did not take it:

I'll do everything to end the war on drugs. The war on drugs has become the most racially disparate outcome that you have in the entire country. Our prisons are full of black and brown kids. Three-fourths of the people in prison are black or brown, and white kids are using drugs, Bill, as you know…at the same rate as these other kids. But kids who have less means, less money, kids who are in areas where police are patrolling…Police are given monetary incentives to make arrests, monetary incentives for their own departments. So I want to end the war on drugs because it's wrong for everybody, but particularly because poor people are caught up in this, and their lives are ruined by it.

There is still considerable ambiguity there about what "end[ing] the war on drugs" would entail. But it is probably significant that Paul, unlike other Republicans seeking their party's presidential nomination, does not feel a need to say legalization is a bad idea. And consistently following Paul's recommendation that states be free to set their own drug policies leads to a position virtually indistinguishable from the one staked out by the senator's father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul.

The elder Paul, who ran for president on the Libertarian Party's ticket in 1988, is more openly and consistently libertarian than his son. But his main drug policy prescription as a legislator and presidential candidate was to eliminate prohibition at the federal level, leaving states free to go their own way. That is what the 21st Amendment, which repealed National Alcohol Prohibition, did, and that is the direction in which Rand Paul seems to be leaning. His CARERS Act would essentially repeal federal prohibition with respect to state-legal medical marijuana.

The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2011, which Ron Paul cosponsored, would have gone further, limiting the federal government's role to curbing the transportation of marijuana into states that continue to ban it. A similar bill, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2015, was introduced in April by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). It says simply that the provisions of the Controlled Substances Act dealing with marijuana "shall not apply to any person acting in compliance with state laws." So far there is no Senate version. Who in that august body would be radical enough to sponsor something like that?

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.