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7 prominent politicians who prove US drug politics are changing

President Barack Obama and Texas Governor Rick Perry have both enacted drug policy reforms while in office.
President Barack Obama and Texas Governor Rick Perry have both enacted drug policy reforms while in office.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

After nearly 44 years, the political tide and rhetoric has started to shift against the war on drugs. With the results of the 2014 midterm elections, four states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana, and several more are expected to take up the issue in the next few years. Politicians now appear to be adapting to the shift in momentum for drug policy reform.

Three decades ago, politicians from both parties raced to bolster their tough-on-crime credentials with unflinching support for a nationwide anti-drug crackdown. The notion of relaxing anti-drug laws was widely seen as politically unthinkable, particularly in the face of what many at the time saw as a crack cocaine epidemic

Today, more politicians are coming out in favor of serious drug policy reform — even the legalization of medical marijuana and the decriminalization of pot.

The changing tides are fairly prominent even among some of the nation's most powerful politicians, from President Barack Obama to senators to governors of liberal and conservative states. Their support for drug policy reform is often nuanced and mixed, and none of them, to this point, support outright marijuana legalization.

But the words and actions of these seven prominent politicians, all of whom could run for president in 2016, suggest that US drug politics have significantly changed from the days when being "soft on crime" was a political death knell.

1) Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton seems more open to drug policy reforms than ever before. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images News)

Hillary Clinton, widely seen as the frontrunner for a Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, said in 2007 that she supported more research into medical marijuana but opposed decriminalization. "I don't think we should decriminalize it," she said, "but we ought to do research into what, if any, medical benefits it has."

By June of 2014, at a town hall hosted by CNN, Clinton was willing to go further. She said she supports medical marijuana "for people who are in extreme medical conditions" and "under appropriate circumstances," although she again called for more research. Clinton also seemed open to full legalization — if it works in states like Colorado and Washington. "States are the laboratories of democracy," she said. "We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now. I want to wait and see what the evidence is."

2) New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Andrew Cuomo

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo legalized medical marijuana in his state and proposed expanding the state's marijuana decriminalization law. (Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images Entertainment)

Throughout his governorship, New York's Andrew Cuomo, whose name is often often dropped in discussions about the 2016 presidential race, has supported loosening marijuana laws in New York. In early 2014, the Democract helped legalize medical marijuana in his state. "Medical marijuana has the potential to do a lot of good for a lot of people," he said at a press conference. "Some of these cases are some of the most heart-wrenching you've ever heard, dealing with children."

In 2012, Cuomo also proposed a plan that would have expanded the state's marijuana decriminalization law. In New York, marijuana is technically decriminalized except when it's in public view. Police, particularly in New York City, consistently used the exception to go after black and Latino men and teens in stop-and-frisk searches: police would get them to empty their pockets and expose any marijuana — if they had any — to public view, justifying an arrest and a misdemeanor charge. Cuomo's plan would have closed this loophole.

"There is a blatant inconsistency," Cuomo told reporters in 2012, according to CNN. "If you possess marijuana privately, it is a violation; if you show it in public, it's a crime. It's incongruous. It's inconsistent the way it has been enforced."

Cuomo later dropped the plan due to stiff political opposition and after a court forced New York City to end most stop-and-frisk searches.

3) Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley

Martin O'Malley

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed laws that legalized medical marijuana and decriminalization. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News)

Gov. Martin O'Malley, another Democrat whose name comes up often in talks about the 2016 presidential race, has been fairly liberal on marijuana policy. Earlier this year, he approved multiple laws that decriminalized pot and allowed the drug for medical use in Maryland.

"As a young prosecutor, I once thought that decriminalizing the possession of marijuana might undermine the public will necessary to combat drug violence and improve public safety," O'Malley said in a statement in April confirming his support for the decriminalization law. "I now think that decriminalizing possession of marijuana is an acknowledgement of the low priority that our courts, our prosecutors, our police, and the vast majority of citizens already attach to this transgression of public order and public health."

4) Sen. Rand Paul

Rand Paul

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is one of the most outspoken Republican critics of the war on drugs. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) doesn't support the legalization of marijuana, but he has said that states should be free to make their own marijuana laws. Paul also teamed up with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) for a bill that would prevent the feds from interfering with states' medical marijuana laws.

Paul's rationale for these changes tracks closely with the rhetoric Democrats use to justify criminal justice reforms. "If you look at the war on drugs, three out of four people in prison are black or brown," Paul said at a convention in Iowa. "White kids are doing it, too. In fact, if you look at all the surveys, white kids do it just as much as black and brown kids. But the prisons are full of black and brown kids because they don't get a good attorney, they live in poverty, it's easier to arrest them than to go to the suburbs."

Paul has applied this kind of rhetoric to several bipartisan proposals. One bill would encourage state-level reforms to help adults with nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession, seal their criminal records and let low-level drug offenders receive food stamp and welfare benefits after they get out of prison. Another bill would let judges issue sentences below mandatory minimums in some circumstances. A third proposal would restore voting rights to many nonviolent felons.

5) Texas Gov. Rick Perry

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry has been one of the most prominent advocates in the country for drug courts. (Frederic Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who launched a disastrous bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and is expected to try again in 2016, has been a vocal advocate for drug courts, which send nonviolent drug offenders to rehabilitation programs instead of prison. Under Perry, Texas expanded the number of drug courts from seven to 74, according to the governor's office.

"After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can't change what happened in the past," Perry said in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, according to the Austin American-Statesman. "What I can do as the governor of the second-largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that's what we've done over the last decade. So I think there's some innovation that goes on in the states that can translate not just to Oklahoma or California or New York, but to Switzerland, to France, to other countries that have this drug issue facing them, that there are some alternatives without going that big full step and decriminalizing and sending a message to people that it's okay."

Perry also said states should be allowed to legalize marijuana, although he personally opposes decriminalization and legalization.

6) Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal

Bobby Jindal

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal proposed and passed reforms that let nonviolent drug offenders get out of prison earlier. (Scott Olson / Getty Images News)

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of the most vocal social conservatives in the Republican Party and another 2016 contender, proposed and signed a law in 2013 that allows nonviolent drug offenders to gain early release from jail or prison if they agree to participate in rehabilitation programs.

"There are a number of low-risk, nonviolent drug offenders in our prisons who can still turn things around and become productive members of society instead of repeat offenders," Jindal said in a statement. "This common sense piece of legislation will provide these offenders with the treatment they need to recover and safely re-enter our communities. This reform will not only save taxpayer dollars, but it will also enable folks in our criminal justice system to focus resources on protecting our citizens from violent and other serious criminals."

Although Jindal still opposes marijuana legalization, he stated in January — and his spokesperson later confirmed — that he would support the legalization of medical marijuana under tightly controlled conditions. "When it comes to medical marijuana if there is a legitimate medical need, I'd certainly be open to making it available under very strict supervision for patients that would benefit from that," Jindal told reporters, according to the Advocate.

This certainly doesn't mean Jindal is a major drug policy reformer. (Earlier this year, he signed a law that doubled mandatory minimum sentences for heroin distribution.) But the fact someone as conservative as Jindal holds some softer stances on crime and drugs shows the politics around the issues are shifting.

7) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took a noticeably softer tone against drugs in recent speeches, although he still opposes marijuana legalization. (Jeff Zelevansky / Getty Images News)

Like Jindal and Perry, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a prominent Republican governor and predicted 2016 contender who's pushed for drug policy reforms in his state.

Yahoo News' Chris Moody reports: "In New Jersey, Christie in particular has poured significant time and resources as governor into championing a program for the state that treats drug users as disease victims in need of treatment, instead of punishment. Since he was elected in 2010, Christie has advocated for drug courts that sentence nonviolent offenders to mandatory treatment programs in lieu of jail time. For help, he's partnered with local community groups, drug rehabilitation centers and New Jersey churches to implement a plan to make access to drug treatment available throughout the state in cooperation with state government initiatives."

In a 2012 speech, Christie criticized the war on drugs. "The war on drugs, while well-intentioned, has been a failure," Christie said at the Brookings Institution, according to the Huffington Post. "We're warehousing addicted people everyday in state prisons in New Jersey, giving them no treatment."

But Christie has publicly criticized marijuana legalization in Colorado. "See if you want to live in a major city in Colorado, where there are head shops popping up on every corner, and people flying into your airport just to get high," Christie said, according to the International Business Times. "To me, it's not the quality of life we want to have here in the state of New Jersey."

Christie's mixed comments and actions reflect the current crossroads of US drug politics. Politicians and policymakers from both parties are clearly moving toward reform, but they're also very mindful of the 1980s rhetoric that successfully labeled many politicians, particularly liberals, as soft-on-crime — and ruined their careers.


Update: Added a mention of a law signed by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal that increased mandatory minimum sentences for heroin distribution.