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Drug Policy in the 2016 Presidential Election

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drug policy and the 2016 elections

Drugs, both legal and illegal, occupy an unshakeable position in American culture and society. The topic of legalizing some drugs and criminalizing the use of other drugs sharply divides opinions, usually along political lines. With an election looming on the horizon, the men and women who have announced their intention to run for the presidency of the United States will soon become the faces of drug policy in the 2016 presidential election.

A Brief History of Drugs and Policy in America

Drugs in the United States may be a very current issue, but the history between the US and drugs goes back a long way. In 1619, the first permanent English settlement in the American continent, the Jamestown Settlement, required its farmers to cultivate cannabis. George Washington himself grew cannabis as his primary crop.[1] As late as 1885, cocaine enjoyed such widespread acceptance and popularity that doctors did not have to write a prescription to distribute it to people for any number of ailments. For only 15 cents ($3.66 in 2014 dollars), a parent could purchase children’s tooth drops containing cocaine for an “instantaneous cure.”[2]

cocaine toothache drops
By KiloByte at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But as science began to catch up to the dangers of drugs, government was not far behind. As “the extremely debilitating” influence of drugs was further understood, cities started passing ordinances to restrict the use of drugs, culminating in the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act (the first significant consumer protection law in the US, and the genesis of the Food & Drug Administration), mandating that the patent medicine industry list the presence of alcohol, opiates, cocaine, and cannabis in its drugs.Such moves had their political motivations as well. Part of the reason for the clampdown was because the American government knew how much the Chinese government resented the opium trade. By curtailing the spread and use of illegal opium, the government hoped to make China more amenable to legitimate trade.

Motivations aside, by the time World War II broke out in 1939, drugs had fallen almost completely out of favor with the American population, and it was widely believed that the “problem” of illegal drugs had been resolved.[3]

‘A Trillion Dollar Failure’

prison and abuse

Of course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the truth about drugs in society is a little bit different. Figures from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program at the FBI show that 80 percent of everyone who is in prison abuses drugs or alcohol, and 50 percent of that population are dependent on drugs. Sixty percent of the people arrested for general crimes tested positive for drugs when they were arrested.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, these crimes are usually:

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Aggravated assault
  • Burglary
  • Larceny
  • Serious motor vehicle offenses with dangerous consequences
  • Arson
  • Hate crime[4]

The easy answer for any would-be presidential candidate would just be to criminalize all drugs and remove one of the biggest public health menaces threatening the country (and maybe even the world) today. But every politician remembers the story of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, better known as “Prohibition.” The effects of going outright against drugs had made the “War on Drugs” synonymous with sparking a drug industry that has corrupted countries like Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, and found its way to American cities like Baltimore and Chicago.[5]

Not for nothing did CNN call the War on Drugs “a trillion dollar failure.”[6]

Drugs and the 2016 Presidential Election

For those reasons (and a number of others), drugs are as much a political issue as they are a public safety one. It is widely expected that what to do (or what not to do) about drugs will be a front-and-center issue of the 2016 United States presidential election.

A 2014 Gallup poll showed that, despite some fluctuations, a majority of the American population persisted in their support for the legalization of (recreational) cannabis.[7]

With that in mind, the Huffington Post posits that the respective candidates’ opinions and stated policies on marijuana may influence the election’s outcome. As advocates in states like Arizona,

Massachusetts, California, and Maine push for legalization ballots, the cry of bringing political legitimacy to marijuana is getting harder to ignore; so much so, says the communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, that if a candidate adopts a stance against marijuana policy reform, it may cost him or her the youth vote.

That may not be just rhetoric: according to the Post, millennials will account for a “huge segment” of the voting public by 2016. The Post article quotes a 2014 CNN/ORC International poll that showed 64 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 support legalization, while those 65 and older were only in favor by 31 percent.[8]

marijuana legalization support


‘The Marijuana Election’

marijuana election
Newsweek goes even further than the Huffington Post, saying that 2016 will be the “marijuana election,” because candidates will not be able to ignore or dismiss the topic. Unsurprisingly, the debate will come down to partisan lines: people who vote Democrat tend to support liberal marijuana laws (73 percent, according to the Gallup polls), and Democratic candidates will happily talk about supporting the use of medical marijuana to bolster their stances on health care and family life (to reach out to moderate Republicans). Appealing to African-American and Latino communities, Democratic candidates will likely speak to discrimination, criminal justice reform (drug arrests of black people rose at three times the rate of drug arrests for white people in 2013, according to the Human Rights Watch[9]), demographic disparities, and what marijuana arrests might do to families and jobs.[10]

The majority of Republicans, on the other hand, will likely not be swayed yet. Those who vote red tend to be against legalization, with Gallup polls showing that only 35 percent of conservatives were in favor of decriminalizing marijuana. Instead, they want tougher federal laws about the use of marijuana, fearing that the eroding taboo of marijuana will lead to it falling into the hands of teenagers, who likely won’t use it properly. Additionally, conservatives fear that marijuana may act as a “gateway drug” to more dangerous, addictive substances.[11]

Newsweek concludes its take on “the marijuana election” by positing that the presidential candidates will not be asked if they used marijuana, but rather what their positions are on marijuana policies. The shift marks a huge distinction compared to previous presidential campaigns, where Bill Clinton’s 1992 admission that he smoked marijuana (but famously “didn’t inhale”) was added to the criticism of the then-candidate’s character.[12]

Marijuana is expected to be such a big issue in 2016 (the “gay marriage” of the election, according to some[13]) that all the frontrunners of the respective major parties have said, or indicated, their public positions on various drug issues, covering the legal status of marijuana to their ideas of sentencing for tougher drug violations.

Hillary Clinton

As she was preparing for her 2008 run, Hillary Clinton opposed the legalization of marijuana, saying that it should not be decriminalized. Seven years later, her views have “evolved.” While still playing it safe and not outright supporting legalization, Clinton suggested that Colorado and Washington paving the way for decriminalizing recreational marijuana might yield a clue as to how legalization might work on a broader scale.[14]

Also in the last election cycle, Clinton called for refocusing punitive efforts away from blanket prison sentences and towards diversionary methods like drug courts for nonviolent offenders.[15] To that effect, the former First Lady and Secretary of State identified mental health and drug treatment as “big parts” of her current campaign, calling for concentrated policies to defeat cutbacks and address what she called a “quiet epidemic.”[16]

Clinton demonstrated her intention of this in 2007, by supporting what became the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

The Fair Sentencing Act

fair sentencing act

The Fair Sentencing Act was written to address what became known as the “crack/powder sentencing disparity” – namely, the uneven sentencing protocols for individuals arrested for possessing crack cocaine, who face much more stringent penalties than those arrested for possessing powdered cocaine. Someone found with five grams of crack cocaine would be hit with a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years; a person with powdered cocaine, on the other hand, would have to be in possession of 500 grams to receive the same sentence. Ten grams of crack cocaine would net a mandatory sentence of 10 years; for powdered cocaine, 1,000 grams would be needed for the same sentence.[17]

However, a 1997 study had compared both crack and powdered cocaine and found that there was no significant difference in the addictiveness of either substance. Commenting on the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the Los Angeles Times suggested that the enforcement of hitherto disparate sentencing criterion was due to the “panic” of the crack epidemic sweeping the country.[18]

Lindsey Graham

Clinton’s support of the Fair Sentencing Act strongly indicates her thoughts on the crime-and-punishment nature of cracking down on dangerous drugs. She was not alone: Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also co-authored the Fair Sentencing Act.[19] Unlike Clinton, who expressed cautious optimism about the likelihood of legalizing recreational marijuana, Graham is completely against it. In an interview with WBTV, Graham clarified his opposition but spoke positively of medicinal marijuana, saying it was reasonable and logical to do whatever was possible to help families and sick children (in reference to the popularity of a strain of medical marijuana that was being used to treat pediatric epilepsy).[20]

That said, Graham has shown that his opinions on other drug issues fall squarely on party lines. He was one of the senators who refused to vote on the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill that addressed drug law reforms and mandatory minimum sentences (like the Fair Sentencing Act, which Graham did support).[21]

lindsey graham
Lindsey Graham official photo” by United States Congress . Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Rick Santorum

Another candidate with “evolving” views on the subject is Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Santorum explained to Fox News that although he was a supporter of zero-tolerance drug policies in the past, such an approach has now proven to be untenable. Finding common ground with Hillary Clinton, Santorum feels that the excessively high incarceration rate for drug offenders was reason enough to shift focus away from drugs and more towards the criminal justice system.[22]

However, when it comes to marijuana, Santorum does not break rank with the Republican Party. Not only does he oppose the legalization of marijuana, Santorum feels that Colorado and Washington are in violation of federal law for decriminalizing the drug.[23]

rick santorum
Rick Santorum by Gage Skidmore 5” by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Marco Rubio

Similarly, Marco Rubio of Florida stands firmly behind his opposition to legalizing marijuana. Unlike Santorum (who admitted to trying marijuana once and not liking it), Rubio has refused to answer the question of whether he has tried marijuana instead; instead, he is of the official stance that it is impossible to responsibly use recreational marijuana. Like Santorum, Rubio feels that the federal government was in error for letting Colorado and Washington decriminalize marijuana within their boundaries.[24]

Where Rubio diverges from Rick Santorum and Hillary Clinton is in his objection to criminal justice reform for drug sentences. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Times in October 2014, Rubio wrote that “careless weakening of drugs laws” should not be the driver of reform, especially when such laws did “so much to help end the violence and mayhem that plagued American cities.”[25] The Washington Post quotes Rubio as saying that reductions in sentences in drug crimes should be made with great care.[26]

Rubio’s position puts him squarely at odds with not only his Republican colleagues and opponents (like his fellow presidential candidate Rick Perry, whose home state of Texas saved “billions of dollars” and shut down three prisons by sending money to drug courts and probationary rehabilitation programs[27]), but also the evidence: even as crime rates have fallen, notes the National Journal, the number of people behind bars is at historic levels.[28]

marco rubio
By United States Senate [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rick Perry

Perry’s achievements in the field of drug court expansion won him praise from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, who bestowed upon him their Governor of the Year Award.[29]

Further signaling his (comparatively) progressive views on drugs, Perry called for marijuana to be decriminalized, saying that outdated drug policies have led to nothing but overburdened prisons and ruined lives. Stopping short of advocating legalization, Perry supports states’ rights when it comes to marijuana.[30]

rick perry
RickPerry2006” by Jonathan Blundell (user jblundell) – flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Rand Paul

The Washington Post article mentioned above juxtaposes Rubio’s concerns with Rand Paul’s views on the subject. Paul, representing Kentucky, made his criticisms of the War on Drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing for minor drug offenses a key component of his arguments, saying that unfair prison sentencing has deprived millions of children of a father figure in their households. To that effect, Paul sponsored the Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment bill (RESET), which downgrades low-level drug possessions from felonies to misdemeanors and addresses the same disparities targeted by the Fair Sentencing Act. He co-authored the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, which granted judges greater flexibility in deciding sentences in federal crimes where the mandatory minimum sentence might not fit the crime.[31], [32]

In 2013, Paul expressed his opposition to the legalization of marijuana (“the main thing I’ve said is not to legalize [drugs]”, he told Fox News Sunday[33]), but in 2015, he became the first major party candidate to court the legal marijuana industry. Paul clarified that he now sees marijuana at a state issue and not a federal one, saying that as president, he would not interfere with local decisions on decriminalization.[34], [35]

rand paul
Rand Paul by Gage Skidmore 11” by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz (R-Tex) is of the same mind as Rand Paul when it comes to states’ rights and marijuana legalization. While not supporting the overall idea of legal recreational marijuana, he applauded the people of Colorado for taking the matter into their own hands. “I don’t agree with it,” he said at a conference, “but that’s their right.”[36]

However, Cruz had criticized the Obama administration’s decision to not enforce federal law if Colorado went their own way on marijuana.[37]

ted cruz
Ted Cruz, official portrait, 113th Congress” by United States Senate – Office of Senator Ted Cruz. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Jeb Bush

In his quest to become the third member of the Bush dynasty to claim the Oval Office, Jeb Bush of Florida has not yet made any public comments about potential presidential position in relation to drugs. However, as the former governor of Florida, Bush opposed the legalization of marijuana and supported “harsh” drug policies, a political stance that drew considerable ire. Bush’s daughter, Noelle, received drug treatment for her substance abuse problem, despite her father’s public (and political) preference for incarceration. Arianna Huffington, writing for Salon in 2002, called the dichotomy “the latest Bush hypocrisy,” claiming that while Bush’s daughter received “every break in the book – and then some,” the then-governor opposed a proposed ballot initiative that would have given an estimated 10,000 non-violent drug offenders treatment instead of jail time.[38]

Huffington’s point was echoed by Rand Paul 13 years later, who not only criticized the double standard of “very wealthy white people” monopolizing the resources of treatment and rehabilitation, but also Jeb Bush’s opposition to medical marijuana.[39]
jeb bush
Jeb Bush 2013 CPAC by Gage Skidmore” by Gage Skidmore – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Chris Christie

Jeb Bush’s blanket criticism of any drug decriminalization is shared by New Jersey’s Chris Christie, who promised to “crack down” on states that have legalized the sale of recreational marijuana, warning that a President Christie would not treat such states very well.[40], [41]

Blaming what he calls an “enormous addiction problem” in the United States, Christie has expressed mixed feelings on medical marijuana. As governor, he signed a bill to ease the restrictions on children entering a medical marijuana program but called such programs in the 23 states that have legalized medical marijuana a “front” for eventual legalization of recreational marijuana.[42], [43]

chris christie
Chris Christie by Gage Skidmore” by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Drug Policy in the 2016 Presidential Election

Christie’s deep-seated antagonism to progressive drug policies, as well as those of other Republican candidates like Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, suggest that the road to the White House might be a bumpy one. MSNBC warns that with public attitudes towards drugs becoming more liberal (similar to what various Gallup polls over the past few years have found), political candidates who remain steadfast in their objection to drug and criminal reform might put them out of touch with the independents and moderate Democrat voters they will have to appeal to in the general election.

As MSNBC puts it, there isn’t strong evidence that the American public want the kind of “crackdown” that Chris Christie wants.[44] Ted Cruz told NPR that the Supreme Court of the United States was out of touch with public opinion when the court extended same-sex marriage rights across all 50 states, but numerous polls show that a majority of the country (60 percent) support the legal right for gay people to get married.[45] Similarly, if the 2016 election will really be “the marijuana election” (in the words of Newsweek), and if marijuana legalization will really be the same-sex marriage of 2016 (in the words of the American Prospect), whoever inherits the office of President of the United States could well find themselves at a crossroads of the history of drug policy in America.


[1]The History of Medicinal Cannabis — Marijuana.” (n.d.) Montana Legislature. Accessed June 29, 2015.

[2]Medicine in 1860s Victoria — 19th Century Medicine.” (n.d.) University of Victoria. Accessed June 29, 2015.

[3]Enforcing New Drug Laws, 1919-1950s.” (n.d.) DEA Museum & Visitors Center. Accessed June 29, 2015.

[4]Drugs and Crime.” (n.d.) National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[5]U.S. Cities Become Hubs of Mexican Drug Cartels.” (November 2012). The Washington Post. Accessed June 29, 2015.

[6]War on Drugs a Trillion Dollar Failure.” (December 2012). CNN. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[7]Majority Continues to Support Pot Legalization in U.S.” (November 2014). Gallup. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[8]How Marijuana May Influence the 2016 Election.” (January 2014). The Huffington Post. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[9]Race, Drugs and Law Enforcement in the United States.” (June 2009). Human Rights Watch. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[10]2016 Will be the Marijuana Election.” (March 2015). Newsweek. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[11]Republican Views on Marijuana.” (November 2014). Accessed June 30, 2015.

[12] “Clinton Tried Marijuana as a Student, He Says.” (March 1992). The New York Times. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[13]Marijuana Legislation Will Be the Gay Marriage of the 2016 Presidential Election.” (January 2014). The American Prospect. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[14]Hillary Clinton Evolves on Another Issue.” (June 2014). National Journal. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[15]Transcript of the Third Democratic Primary Presidential Debate.” (June 2007). The New York Times. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[16]Mental Health, Drug Treatment Will Be a “Big Part” of Clinton’s Campaign.” (April 2015). Buzzfeed. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[17]The Fair Sentencing Act Corrects a Long-Time Wrong in Cocaine Cases.” (August 2010). Washington Post. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[18]The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010: It’s About Time.” (July 2010). Los Angeles Times. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[19]S. 1789 (111th): Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.” (n.d.) Accessed June 30, 2015.

[20]Legalizing Medical Marijuana: Where do NC, SC Stand?” (February 2014). WBTV. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[21]The Long, Slow Push to Prison Sentencing Reform.” (April 2014). MSNBC. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[22] “Is Potential 2016 Candidate Rick Santorum on the Same Page as Hillary Clinton on Criminal Justice Reform?” (April 2015). Fox News Radio. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[23]Here’s Where the GOP’s 2016 Presidential Contenders Stand on Marijuana Legalization.” (May 2015). The Huffington Post. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[24] “Mario Rubio’s “Pot” Hole.” (May 2014). Yahoo! News. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[25]Wanted: An Attorney General Committed to the Constitution.” (October 2014). The Washington Times. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[26]How Rubio’s Stance on Drug Laws Stands Out in GOP Presidential Field.” (April 2015). The Washington Post. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[27]Prison Reform is Bigger in Texas.” (April 2014). The Daily Beast. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[28]How Republicans Stopped Being “Tough on Crime.”” (October 2014). National Journal. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[29]Texas Governor Rick Perry Receives National Award for Criminal Justice Reform.” (April 2014). Globe News Wire. Accessed July 1, 2015.

[30]Rick Perry Urges Move Toward Marijuana Decriminalization.” (January 2014). Washington Post. Accessed July 1, 2015.

[31]Here’s Rand Paul’s Plan to Reform Drug Laws.” (July 2014). Business Insider. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[32]Unlike His Father, Rand Paul Just Says “No” To Marijuana Legalization.” (March 2013). MSNBC. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[33]Sen. Rand Paul on Top Congressional Issues; Pivotal Moment in the Battle Over Gay Marriage.” (March 2013). Fox News. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[34] “Paul is First Major-Party Candidate to Court Pot Donors.” (June 2015). Seattle P-I. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[35] “Rand Paul “Wouldn’t Interfere” With Legal Pot.” (June 2015). 9News. Accessed July 1, 2015.

[36]CPAC Cruz: Applauds Colorado Pot Legalization.” (February 2015). The Colorado Independent. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[37]Sen. Cruz Defends Colorado’s Right to Legal Pot a Year After Hitting Obama for Allowing It.” (February 2015). The Washington Post. Accessed June 30, 2015.

[38]The Latest Bush Hypocrisy.” (September 2002). Salon. Accessed July 1, 2015.

[39]Rand Paul: Jeb Bush is “Hypocritical” on Marijuana.” (February 2015). Fox News. Accessed July 1, 2015.

[40]Chris Christie: “I Will Crack Down and Not Permit” Legal Marijuana as President.” (April 2015). The Huffington Post. Accessed July 1, 2015.

[41]Why Legal Marijuana Supporters Should Worry About a Chris Christie Presidency.” (June 2014). The Huffington Post. Accessed July 1, 2015.

[42]Chris Christie Says He Opposes Bill to Legalize Marijuana in NJ.” (April 2014). Accessed July 1, 2015.

[43]Christie Says Medical Marijuana Programs Are a “Front for Legalization.”” (June 2014). Accessed July 1, 2015.

[44]2016 Will Decide the Fate of Drug Policy Progress.” (April 2015). MSNBC. Accessed July 1, 2015.

[45]Ted Cruz Says Supreme Court On Same-Sex Marriage Is Out of Step With Public, But Polls Don’t Agree.” (July 2015). PolitiFact. Accessed July 1, 2015.