Rand Paul’s drug war talk in Iowa was important, but not for the reason you think

Vox notes that last weekend, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) talked about the drug war’s disproportionate effect on communities of color.

If you look at the war on drugs, 3 out of 4 people in prison are black or brown. White kids are doing it too, in fact, if you look at all the surveys, white kids do it just as much as black and brown kids. But the prisons are full of black and brown kids because they don’t get a good attorney, they live in poverty, it’s easier to arrest them than to go to the suburbs.

Paul also touched on a theme we’ve explored here at The Watch — the overlooked value of redemption.

Most of us are Christians or Jews or of the Judeo-Christian faith, and it’s like, we believe in redemption. We believe in a second chance. Should a 19-year old kid get a second chance? I think yes. Let’s be the party that has compassion, that doesn’t say the behavior is right, but says, ‘You know what? When you’re done with your time, you get the right to vote back.’ Let’s be the party that is for extending the right to vote back to people who have paid their time, who have reformed their ways.

I’d point out that a fair number of we nonbelievers think redemption is important, too. Still, this is an important thing to hear from a U.S. senator, and particularly from a Republican senator with presidential ambitions. (But I repeat myself.)

Vox’s Andrew Prokop sees some electoral significance in where Paul gave this talk — at a Republican convention in Iowa. Prokop is right — it’s an indication that Paul won’t be playing down his libertarian leanings in the primaries. Or at least these libertarian leanings.

But there’s another reason this speech was particularly relevant in Iowa: The state has a larger racial disparity for marijuana arrests than any other state in the country. According to an American Civil Liberties Union report released last year, while blacks nationally are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites in America, in Iowa the figure is an astonishing 8.34. Next is Minnesota at 8.05, followed by Illinois (7.81), Wisconsin (7.56) and Kentucky (5.95).

It will be intriguing to see how Paul’s message resonates in Iowa. To his credit, he certainly isn’t pandering: A poll taken in March found that nearly 70 percent are in opposition to legalization for recreational use. A similar Quinnipiac poll a couple of weeks later found opposition among Republicans at 76 percent. It seems reasonable to assume that among the older, more conservative subset of caucus-goers, the figure is even higher. 

Paul’s outreach to minority voters has sometimes been criticized for being opportunistic and awkward. It has also been derided as an attempt to cover up his prior association with some political operatives who had expressed some pretty repugnant views. There’s certainly some truth to those criticisms. But this is different, and Paul deserves a lot of credit for it. (Much as it pains me to credit a politician.)

It’s a rare thing for a politician positioning himself for a presidential run to go to an early primary state and say things about the criminal justice system that the people he’s courting may not want to hear. There’s nothing politically opportunistic about telling a bunch of white Iowa GOP caucusers that we need to stop locking up black teenagers for drugs — or that those who have been locked up should get back the right to vote.

Paul isn’t just refusing to pander, here. He’s actually trying to lead.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · June 18