Former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who on Thursday made his presidential ambitions official, suggested earlier this week that he supports decriminalizing drug use, a position that makes him the most progressive voice on drug policy among the current field of contenders.
“Just as in mental health issues, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to put someone in jail when they have a disease, when they have an illness, a physical illness,” Webb said Tuesday at the National Sheriffs’ Association Conference in Baltimore. “There’ve got to be better ways for us to approach the issues of drug use in America.”
Speaking before an audience of about 100 sheriffs, Webb also stressed the value of drug policies that prioritize harm reduction and education over enforcement and incarceration.
“We didn’t make cigarettes illegal,” said Webb. “We just got the information out there and educated people about the potential harm.”
This approach, he added, proved effective at reducing cigarette use.
“That is actually a success of education regarding your health, more than punitive law per se, and there have to be similar approaches when it comes to drug use,” he said.
Webb’s team did not respond to a request for comment.
The populist Democrat has never been shy about challenging the government’s prohibition-above-all approach to drug policy. Webb was a leader on criminal justice reform during his one term in the Senate, and in 2009, he established a commission to create a set of legislative proposals to help scale back mass incarceration. At the time, he suggested to The Huffington Post that marijuana legalization would be on the table. The commission was ultimately blocked by Webb’s Senate colleagues.
If Webb runs on a bold drug policy platform that includes decriminalization, or even legalization, he could force a more wide-ranging debate on the issue than we’ve seen in the past.
Drug policy reformers are already seeing Webb’s comments as a sign that the political discussion on drugs may finally be moving past the era in which “tough on crime” was the only viable position.
“The American experience with tobacco shows that a successful public health approach to drugs doesn’t involve handcuffs and jail cells,” said Tom Angell, founder and chairman of the pot policy group Marijuana Majority. “The fact that a likely presidential candidate like Jim Webb is saying this publicly — in front of a group of cops, no less — shows just how far the politics of drug policy reform have shifted in recent years.”
Drug policy hasn’t really come up as a significant issue on the campaign trail, though it’s still early days. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is also vying for the Democratic nomination, has been relatively cautious even on the more mainstream issue of marijuana policy, saying last year that she would wait and see how legalization efforts proceeded in states before she takes a position on national policy. She’s also characterized marijuana as a gateway drug — an assertion that is, at best, still a matter of debate — and argued that more research is needed to study the medical benefits of the plant.
Clinton did attract attention in May, however, when she suggested that her platform would address the “quiet epidemic” of heroin and methamphetamine addiction, abuse and overdose. She instructed her team “to go beyond standard policies and really take a hard look at some of the more creative or forward-looking policy positions” on these issues, the Clinton campaign’s senior policy director told The New York Times.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) hasn’t spent a lot of time talking about drug policy since officially announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination — though he, like Clinton, did say in a June interview that he’d prefer to wait and see how marijuana legalization plays out in individual states before he officially takes a position. In the same interview, Sanders said more generally that the United States has “far, far too many people in jail for non-violent crimes, and I think in many ways, the war against drugs has not been successful, and I think we’ve got to rethink that.”
In the crowded Republican field, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) has been the most outspoken on drug policy, frequently criticizing the war on drugs and its contributions to mass incarceration. While Paul has spoken out in favor of a less punitive approach to pot policy, he’s been hesitant to endorse broader legalization, saying he’d prefer to see those decisions left up to the states. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another likely 2016 candidate, has also touted marijuana decriminalization and alternatives to incarceration, though he’s made it clear that he sees drug policy as a states’ rights issue.
Polling suggests the nation is ready for a more substantive and broad-minded conversation about drug policy. Surveys have repeatedly shown that Americans are fed up with what they see as an expensive and ineffective drug war, draconian sentencing laws and an irrational adherence to marijuana prohibition.
And perhaps most importantly for Webb — or, indeed, for any candidate thinking of taking a bold stance on drug policy — a 2014 Pew poll found that two-thirds of Americans support offering treatment for people who use illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine, rather than trying to prosecute them.