It is difficult to believe that a marijuana-centered throwback to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaigns of the 1980s will be a winning issue for any presidential candidate in 2016. But then, who among us possesses the political canniness of Chris Christie? The governor of New Jersey seems to have decided that if he is going to distinguish himself from the crowded GOP primary field on anything, it will be by running as an anti-drug crusader who will keep our children safe from the scourge of the devil’s weed. Next maybe he’ll start warning parents about the evil jazz music the kids are listening to on the Victrola while Mom and Dad are down the street at the neighbors’ cocktail party.
Christie touched on his opposition to marijuana legalization during Monday’s No Labels forum in New Hampshire, but it is an issue he has been talking about for some time. The former federal prosecutor seems to have calculated that he’ll be the law-and-order candidate on drug issues for this campaign. Never mind that of all the issues concerning voters heading into next year’s election, marijuana legalization doesn’t crack the top ten. Never mind that when they are asked about it, a slight majority of the public favors legalization. Never mind that his strident opposition to legalization comes at a time when half the states, including his own, have implemented medical marijuana laws, two states (Colorado and Washington) have legalized pot outright and several others are considering loosening their prohibitions on it. The end result of the governor’s trying to navigate this world of facts is an incoherent and at times flat-out contradictory position on enforcing the nation’s marijuana laws.
Christie’s anti-marijuana stance got some attention in the second GOP presidential debate in September. Prompted by CNN’s Jake Tapper, the governor clashed with Sen. Rand Paul about his recent comments that anyone getting high in Colorado might as well enjoy it now because in 2017, President Christie will be enforcing federal drug laws. Which would presumably mean using federal law enforcement to shut down the legalized marijuana regime in that state. Paul, a noted advocate of letting the states do what they want on this issue, tied legalization to criminal sentencing reform and the hypocrisy of incarceration for drug-related crimes falling disproportionately on minorities.
Christie acknowledged and agreed with Paul’s point on sentencing reform, an issue that he is pushing in his campaign. He also reiterated that he has overseen the implementation of medical marijuana in New Jersey. His concern, he said, is with recreational pot use. But he’s being selective in his application here. Medical marijuana violates federal law, as dispensary owners have discovered when raided and shut down by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Why would a President Christie enforce federal law against open legalization in Colorado and Washington while leaving alone the medicinal marijuana regimes in 25 other states, including New Jersey?
The answer to that question can be found in Christie’s language, which seemingly betrayed a need to appeal to both the libertarians in the GOP who see the War on Drugs as a total failure and the more traditional law-and-order culture warriors in the party who still see any illegal drug use as a moral surrender to criminality. Oh, and he tied his position to being strongly pro-life, because why not.
I’m pro-life. And I think you need to be pro-life for more than just the time in the womb. It gets tougher when they get out of the womb. And when they’re the 16-year-old drug addict in the Florida county lockup, that life is just as precious as the life in the womb. […]
But I’ll end with this. That doesn’t mean we should be legalizing gateway drugs. And if Senator Paul thinks that the only victim is the person, look at the decrease in productivity, look at the way people get used and move on to other drugs when they use marijuana as a gateway drug, it is not them that are the only victims. Their families are the victims too, their children are the victims too, and their employers are the victims also.
At a time when more and more of the public has come to see drug addiction as a health crisis and not a law-and-order or moral one, here is a presidential candidate lecturing on drug use by using a framing straight out of a Very Special Episode of a 1980s sitcom. There is a consensus among criminal-justice experts, growing among policymakers, that we need sentencing reform that treats drug offenders as addicts instead of hardened criminals who should be tossed in prison or, worse, forced to take “Reefer Madness” seriously. Yet here is Chris Christie repeating every worn-out and ancient trope about pot smokers that was used to justify decades and decades of prohibition.
Or, to put this in terms that would apply if he were running for president in 1956, Chris Christie is such a square, daddy-o.
Such a scintillating and principled position has fueled Christie’s meteoric ascent to an average of somewhere around three percent in national polls. Therein lies a lesson for any candidate talking tough about the issues of sentencing and criminal justice reform. The American people are moving beyond the stereotypes of drug offenders as unworthy losers to be tossed into a hole and forgotten. It’s time our politicians did the same.