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Drugs, Bipartisanship, and the "Leave Us Alone Coalition"

David Callahan

The libertarian wing of the Republican Party is getting stronger with each passing year, and as a result, the end of America's disastrous 40-year "war on drugs" may finally be in sight. 

Once upon a time, the vast majority of conservatives championed tough drug laws at both the national and state level. These laws targeted counter-cultural America and the black underclass -- two of the great bogeymen in the right's backlash story of national decline. Democrats, terrified of looking weak on crime and anxious to neutralize wedge issues, went along with a Draconian crackdown on drugs -- with many Democrats supporting the destructive mandatory minimum sentence laws that largely remain in effect today. 

But the politics of drugs is changing fast as a new generation of libertarians comes to power in the Republican Party who don't believe in drug laws any more than they believe in the EPA or other features of the "nanny state." Consider Senator Rand Paul -- who wasn't named after Ayn Rand but does worship her -- who would have been a fringe figure in the GOP of early eras but now has so much juice in the party that he won a coveted invitation to speak at the Lincoln Day Dinner in Iowa in May. 

This is the same Rand Paul who recently introduced a bill with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy that would relax the mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana offenders. This bill has been supported by Grover Norquist and other conservative leaders who are part of what Norquist has called the "Leave Us Alone Coalition."

Rand Paul also led the fight in the Senate last year to block legislation that would have criminalized a variety of synthetic drugs. Among the staunch supporters of the legislation were Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Amy Klobuchar. Among those opposing the new law was the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Drug Policy Alliance. 

In singling out Rand Paul for praise, the Soros-backed Drug Policy Alliance said that Paul was instrumental in trying to stop legislation that:

would escalate the failed war on drugs, distract law enforcement from dealing with violent crimes, and subject more nonviolent Americans to long prison sentences at taxpayer expense. The legislation, which would criminalize dozens of synthetic drugs, has been criticized by scientists for impeding scientific research and blasted by criminal justice reform groups for perpetuating over-incarceration and racial disparities in drug law enforcement.

Unfortunately, the law was passed and signed by President Obama in June 2012. But not before Rand successfully amended the legislation to strip away the mandatory minimum sentence that would have applied. 

The modern Republican Party is indelibly associated with the get tough politics of law and order. As it happens, though, empowering government to deprive people of their liberty because of what they choose to ingest in their own bodies is as anathema to many Tea Party types as it is to many liberals. Let's hope that coalition of strange bedfellows grows.