Rand Paul isn’t his father’s son when it comes to drug legalization

With the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose, the country's eyes are opening to the growing heroin epidemic in the country. And, interestingly, that national conversation has a tie to the 2016 presidential race.


Ron Paul, left, and his son Rand.

Let's start back in 2012. While running for president, Texas Rep. Ron Paul voiced support for the legalization of both prostitution and hard drugs including cocaine and heroin. “If I leave it to the states, it’ll be up to the states. Up until this last century, for over a hundred years, they were legal,” Paul declared.

Fast forward to today where Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, son of the former Texas congressman, is widely seen as a candidate for the GOP nomination in 2016, and is already facing questions about how much (or little) of his father's views he shares

The younger Paul has long distanced himself from his father’s pro-legalization stances. While campaigning for his father, Rand defended the states-rights positions, but he has since made a point to note that he does not personally favor the legalization of drugs such as heroin and cocaine. He spent much of last year assuring conservatives -- who will be crucial in Iowa, New Hampshire and much of the heartland in 2016 -- that, when it came to drugs, he was on their side.

But much of the Paul brand is built on the backs of the Libertarian-leaning voters who buoyed his father’s presidential bids, and Paul’s refusals in the past to voice support for state-level legalization has earned him some chiding from them. He has, however, charted out a fairly libertarian -- some might even argue, liberal -- position on drug sentencing reform, calling for the walk-back of federal mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

As 2016 inches closer, Paul may find himself increasingly tugged in two directions. Thus far, Paul has toed the line -- supporting sentencing reform that is considered by many essential to undoing the societal damage done by the war on drugs while deliberately staying far away from his father’s states’ rights crusades with regard to drugs.

Here's a more detailed look at Rand Paul on sentencing reform and legalization.

Sentencing reform

Sen. Paul has taken a vocal stance on reducing mandatory minimums for drug offenses and calling for sentencing reform -- stances that will earn him few friends in the tough-on-crime crowds but that endear him to criminal justice reform circles, moderates, and even some Democrats.

During a speech at Howard University last year, Paul characterized it this way:

Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy-handed and arbitrary. They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them. We should stand and loudly proclaim enough is enough. We should not have laws that ruin the lives of young men and women who have committed no violence. That’s why I have introduced a bill to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences. We should not have drug laws or a court system that disproportionately punishes the black community.

It’s a stance that for Paul creates common ground with many on the left. When Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in August that the administration wanted to work to get rid of mandatory minimums, a Paul staffer told The Post that the senator planned to work with the Obama administration to get it done. A few months later, as Paul exchanged tweets with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D), the two seemingly agreed that they would like to see an aggressive attack on the drug war sometime in 2014.

Legalization

While Paul has been one of the most outspoken Republicans in calling for sentencing reform, he has also deliberately charted a much more conservative course in his discussions of drug legalization. In an interview with The Post's Peter Wallsten last May, the senator explained: “To some, ‘libertarian’ scares people. Some of them come up to me and they say, ‘I kind of like you, but I don’t like legalizing heroin.’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s not my position.’ ”

Paul said he believes in freedom and wants a “virtuous society” where people practice “self-restraint.” Yet he believes in laws and limits as well. Instead of advocating for legalized drugs, for example, he pushes for reduced penalties for many drug offenses.“I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” he said. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

Those stances are sure to upset many former supporters of Paul’s father, as well as other libertarians who argue in favor of drug legalization. For Sen. Paul -- who must hone his conservative credentials without losing his libertarian street cred -- it remains to be seen whether this tightrope walk becomes a 2016 problem.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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