Virginia GOP congressional candidates question utility of drug laws

Voting in this year’s Virginia primary election for U.S. House and Senate candidates will begin just hours after this post is published.

This primary eve may be a good time to ask if Virginia’s congressional candidates represent a fresh and (by my estimation) welcome trend in questioning the efficacy and utility of the nation’s drug laws, particularly those which make simple possession of marijuana illegal.

We all know about prominent conservatives of an older generation who argued against the war on drugs, such as former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., and Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman.

And within recent months Sarah Palin and Pat Robertson both spoke out in favor of liberalizing marijuana laws.

I think it’s significant that four Republican candidates for the House of Representatives in Virginia, and at least one U.S. Senate candidate running for the GOP nomination, have spoken out, to one extent or another, on the need to rethink drug laws and to reconsider, at the very least, the laws that make felons of people who possess small amounts of marijuana for their own, personal use.

One might not have expected the fiery preacher E.W. Jackson to be in favor of decriminalizing marijuana. Jackson is one of four candidates — the others are George Allen, Bob Marshall, and Jamie Radtke — looking to run against former Governor Tim Kaine in November to succeed retiring Senator Jim Webb.

Yet at a recent forum sponsored by the Republican Liberty Caucus of Virginia, Jackson said not only that, but admitted to having used drugs in the past.

“I don’t use drugs, obviously,” he said, “but I have.”

Jackson added that, “as a minister,” he tells his congregation that “it’s better not to do drugs. It’s better not to even use alcohol — not that I think using alcohol is some sort of mortal sin, but it has a way of getting control of people’s lives sometimes, so you’re better off staying away from it.”

Continuing, Jackson referred to a recent rant by magician and ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ contestant, Penn Jillette, about the inequities of the war on drugs.

“Let me say, I really am bothered by the idea that we are putting people in jail for getting high,” he explained.

Referring to recent reports, including those in a new biography by David Maraniss, that President Barack Obama was a frequent and open user of marijuana in high school, Jackson had a “there but for the grace of God go I” moment:

“It’s interesting,” he added, that there’s “somebody who I probably don’t have a lot in common with, Penn Jillette, [who] really spoke to my heart and I had to take a step back when he said, ‘the president has confessed to using cocaine, he’s confessed to using marijuana. The only reason he is president is that he didn’t get caught. If he had been caught, his life would have been completely different.’”

Pausing dramatically, Jackson went on:

“Now folks, I can say the same thing. That’s what arrested me. I can say the same thing. I don’t think we should be locking people up and saddling people with felonies because they have used recreational drugs.”

Finally, Jackson said — you can see the video on YouTube to verify his words —

he is “committed to this idea that we should not be locking people up for the recreational use of those drugs — at the very least, of those drugs that we agree don’t put people in a position to do things that are going to destroy their lives and more importantly the lives of others.”

Later, at the same meeting of the RLC-Virginia, Eleventh District House candidate Ken Vaughn, who is facing off tomorrow with Chris Perkins for the privilege of running against Gerry Connolly in November, answered a question about drug laws by echoing Jackson.

Saying he agreed with the position stated by U.S. Senate candidate E.W. Jackson, Vaughn added that, “as long as you keep it to marijuana, I have no problem with removing all the barriers at the federal level. If states want to do something, I think that’s within their rights. I think an awful lot of them would do what California has done with [legalizing] medical marijuana.”

Seventh District House candidate Floyd Bayne, who is challenging Majority Leader Eric Cantor, told the RLC members that “the war on drugs is an abysmal failure.”

He explained that “we’re spending entirely too much money and resources on something that does not work.”

Alcohol Prohibition, he said, “didn’t work and it created a whole new level of crime and black market crime.” Eventually, Americans “wound up having to abolish that amendment because they realized it just wasn’t working.”

Bayne cautioned that the war on drugs is not “something we’re going to be able to end overnight but I think it’s something we need to investigate and revisit and, at the very least, start decriminalizing some things.”

Expressing his own views on drug use, Bayne said that he does not “see any difference between somebody taking a few hits off a marijuana cigarette or getting drunk on whiskey. You’re still impaired, you still have had your mind altered somewhat, whether it’s alcohol or something else doing it.”

Bayne continued with his analogy by saying, “I don’t care what it is, if you’re going to start putting people in jail for five or ten years at a time because they had a marijuana cigarette in their possession, but we’re going to let the guy with Jack Daniels walk down the street, how does that make sense to anybody? It doesn’t to me.”

He expressed concern over “the lives that we’re destroying over something as innocuous as a marijuana cigarette in your possession,” noting that “we’ve got people serving prison time” for pot possession.

Concluding his remarks, Bayne repeated that “it’s time we revisited the idea of decriminalizing some of this stuff.”

(Bayne’s remarks are also available on YouTube.)

Bonnie Girard, who is challenging Fourth District Congressman Randy Forbes in tomorrow’s primary, hasn’t — so far as I know — addressed drug law reform questions in a public forum, but she made her views clear in answering a questionnaire supplied by the Republican Liberty Caucus of Virginia.

The War on Drugs has obviously not succeeded. We must find new solutions. Taking money out of the equation by making it unattractive and uninteresting to criminal organizations to produce and market drugs seems to be an obvious approach.

Back in 1972, the Shafer Commission created by President Nixon and made up largely of anti-drug conservatives, surprisingly came up with this conclusion, with which I agree:

“The criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use… the actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion of the law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.”

Finally, in the Sixth District, farmer and retired Air Force officer Karen Kwiatkowski is challenging incumbent Representative Bob Goodlatte.

In her own answers to the RLC questionnaire, Kwiatkowski said “yes” when asked if she would support a bill to “prevent federal agencies from using funds to enforce federal marijuana law against individuals who are growing, selling, or using medical marijuana in compliance with state laws.”

Then she added:

I also support industrial hemp as an agricultural product and believe it should be supported in Virginia and I don’t understand how federal interference in state laws, some of which are passed by citizen referendum, can be constitutional.

There are eight Republican Members of Congress from Virginia. Three of them have opponents in tomorrow’s primary. All three of those opponents support some form of drug law reform. One other candidate for the Republican nomination, in a district now held by a Democrat, says the same, as does one of the four candidates for the U.S. Senate nomination.

Even if these five candidates do not represent a growing trend in the Republican party, they make it clear that it is possible to question the War on Drugs without jeopardizing one’s conservative credentials. That, I think, is a good thing.

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