Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg Says We Should Decriminalize All the Drugs

“Incarceration should not even be a response to drug possession.”


Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Democratic presidential candidate, told a newspaper editorial board that he doesn't want to put people in jail for possessing or using drugs—not even meth, cocaine, and ecstasy.

Buttigieg's statements to the Des Moines Register's in a meeting right before Christmas is garnering him some new national attention for his blunt declaration that America should not imprison drug users.

His comments start at about 55:15 minutes into this hour-long interview below:

For those who prefer to read (the context is a discussion about what he's learned about leadership from being a mayor):

I would not have said even five years ago what I believe now, which is that incarceration should not even be a response to drug possession.

But what I've seen is—while there continue to be all kinds of harms associated with drug possession and use—it's also the case that we have created, in an effort to deal with what amounts to a public health problem, we have created a bigger problem, a justice problem, and its own form of a health problem, if you think about the impact on a child.

We have kids in South Bend who have grown up with the incarceration of a parent as one of their first experiences. That makes them dramatically more likely to have an encounter with the criminal legal system.

And so I've always been skeptical of mass incarceration but now I believe more than ever we need to take really significant steps, like ending incarceration as a response to simple possession.

Buttigieg is asked whether he means not just drugs like marijuana, but also meth, cocaine, and ecstasy, and he makes it clear that he does not want to imprison anybody for simply using or possessing any illegal drug.

In the interview, Buttigieg talks about seeing the consequences of prohibition in South Bend, where he's encountered teens made ill by consuming synthetic, black market marijuana, which he referred to as "rat poison sprayed on grass."

"You're much better off with real marijuana than this stuff," Buttigieg said.

To be clear, Buttigieg is not calling for the legalization of all drugs, though he supports marijuana legalization. His preference is for drug diversion in the criminal justice system, such as drug courts. Yet programs that "divert" defendants away from incarceration and into rehabilitation and supervised release can frequently have problems of their own. Many operate by bleeding money from participants, who are threatened with incarceration for noncompliance. Of course, Buttigieg calls for a significant amount of federal spending to help counties and cities operate these programs.

Buttigieg first mentioned drug decriminalization in his "Plan to Improve Mental Health Care and Combat Addiction," which he unveiled in August. That plan also calls for easier access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and financial and political support for local needle exchange programs to prevent the spread of disease. That these positions are suddenly driving media coverage reflect his rising poll numbers in Iowa.

"The idea that you can criminalize addiction or the idea that incarceration is the right way to handle possession—I think has been disproven by American experience over the course of my lifetime," he observes, something opponents of the drug war have pointed out time and time again.