Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is one of America’s most radical ideologues. He endorsed a discredited, century-old Supreme Court decision that would give employers nearly limitless power to exploit their workers. He opposes bans on employment discrimination and on whites-only lunch counters. He backs nationwide anti-union legislation that would reduce both union and non-union wages by $1,500 a year. And he backs a dangerous constitutional amendment that would have doubled unemployment and caused the economy to shrink by 17 percent. Few, if any, politicians would do more harm to more people if given the opportunity to turn their preferences into law.
Which is why Democrats need to take his effort to outflank them on drug policy very, very seriously. In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace this morning, Paul laid out an uncharacteristically sensible view of how the nation should approach drugs:
PAUL: The main thing I’ve said is not to legalize [drugs], but not to incarcerate people for extended periods of time. I’m working with Sen. Leahy. We have a bill on mandatory minimums. There are people in jail for 37, 50, 45 years for non-violent crimes. And that’s a huge mistake. Our prisons are full of non-violent criminals.
I don’t want to encourage people to do it. I think even marijuana is a bad thing to do. I think it takes away your incentive to work and show up and do the things you should be doing. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t want to promote that. But I also don’t want to put people in jail who make a mistake. There’s a lot of young people who do this, then later on in their 20s they grow up and they get married and they quit doing things like this. I don’t want to put them in jail and ruin their lives.
Look, the last two presidents could conceivably have been put in jail for their drug use and I really think, you know, look what would have happened. It would have ruined their lives. They got lucky, but a lot of poor kids. particularly in the inner city, they don’t get lucky, they don’t have good attorneys, and they go to jail for these things, and I think it’s a big mistake.
Later in the same interview, Paul — a likely GOP presidential candidate in 2016 — is quite explicit about what he hopes to get out of staking out a sensible view on criminal justice: “someone like myself, I think, could appeal to young people, independents and moderates, because, many of them do think it is a mistake to put people in jail for marijuana use and throw away the key.”
Paul is right on both counts. Incarcerating people who commit minor drug crimes makes no sense, and his stance is a winning issue politically. In 2011, a poll found for the first time that fifty percent of the nation supports outright legalization of marijuana, compared to only 46 percent who oppose it. Among voters under 30, nearly two-thirds support legalization. Since this poll was taken, two states legalized marijuana for recreational use, and numerous others had previously legalized it for medical use. According to one poll, nearly three in four Americans believe the federal government should back off enforcement against people who comply with state marijuana laws.
So if Democrats cede this issue to the likes of Rand Paul, they will give up a powerful opportunity to engage with young voters — and potentially empower one of America’s most dangerous politicians in the process.
Of course, there is another, even more important reason why Democrats should work to liberalize America’s drug laws — Rand Paul is right that ruining people’s lives if they commit common youthful transgressions is immoral. But if Democrats cannot be moved to think sensibly on drugs because it is the right thing to do, the least they could do is think sensibly on drugs because it is in their selfish political interests to do so.