On Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) declared “we will end the failed drug war.” On Wednesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said he would be open to legalizing medical marijuana if it were tightly controlled. And on Thursday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) hinted at support for decriminalizing marijuana in Texas.
The comments from three Republican governors are the latest indication that the rhetoric, at least, may be shifting on the War on Drugs. Christie’s comments are only slightly more aggressive than previous statements on the drug war; he condemned the drug war in 2012, and has since vetoed bills to ensure users of medical marijuana could get an organ transplant, and another to ease access for children with debilitating conditions.
Jindal and Perry’s comments, however, appear to be a change in position. Jindal said during a public meeting on legalization, “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.” Lawmakers told the New Orleans Times-Picayune they believed a medical marijuana bill would be filed now that they know Jindal might not veto it. Louisiana already allows medical marijuana to be prescribed in some limited cases, but there is no provision for legally dispensing the substance. Jindal said he remains opposed to other forms of marijuana legalization.
Perry made his comments during a panel on the “drugs dilemma” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and suggested his state should at least move “toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives,” even as he cautioned of the perils. His spokeswoman told the San Antonio Express-News that he would be in favor of decriminalizing possession of small amounts. But Perry’s own words send a contradictory message about decriminalization. He said:
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 OK.
The terms “decriminalize” and “legalize” are used to say a number of different things, which may partially explain why Perry’s position doesn’t seem to jibe with his own spokeswoman’s description. Most states that have decriminalized marijuana remove all criminal penalties and impose only civil infractions, similar to a parking ticket, for simple possession of minor amounts of the drug. Legalization measures, by contrast, also allow for the legalized production and sale of marijuana. Most states have legalized that distribution for medical purposes, but Colorado and Washington’s laws do the same for adult recreational use. All of these regimes, however, still set stringent limits and impose criminal punishment for those who don’t follow the news laws.
The three governors’ statements may be intentionally vague and noncommittal, in an attempt to appease a growing appetite for a softer approach to marijuana, while adhering to an increasingly outdated “tough-on-crime” approach. In Florida, a medical marijuana ballot initiative is perceived as a potentially decisive issue in the governor’s race. But that state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, remains staunchly opposed to even a medical marijuana law.
Tom Angell, whose organization Marijuana Majority tracks these opinion shifts on marijuana, told ThinkProgress, “It’s heartening to see more elected officials, especially on the right, recognize that vast voter support makes it safe and beneficial for them to speak out in favoring of modernizing marijuana laws and ending the failed war on drugs. But it’s important to note that if these politicians are going to reap the political benefits of talking about the need for drug policy reform, they’re going to have to take action to actually change the laws in their states.”