Pubdate: Sat, 28 Nov 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Authors: Abby Phillip and Katie Zezima


Candidates View 'White' Epidemic As Health Issue, Less So for Pot and Crack

More than 40 years after Republican President Richard M. Nixon coined 
the phrase "war on drugs," many GOP presidential candidates are 
calling for an end to one of its central tenets - by agreeing with 
Democrats to treat low-level drug offenders rather than incarcerate them.

The Republicans are selective, however, about who is deserving of 
their compassion.

Several GOP presidential contenders have advocated treating the 
nation's growing heroin epidemic as a health crisis, not a criminal 
one. But most stop short of advocating the same approach to other 
drug laws, notably those involving marijuana and crack cocaine, which 
disproportionately affect African Americans.

Such views highlight the resonance and reach of the opiate epidemic - 
but also a persistent racial and geographic divide in American 
politics. The heroin epidemic has overwhelmingly hit whites. It has 
also skyrocketed to the top of voters' lists of political priorities 
in the same bands of America - rural states, the suburbs and notably 
the early voting state of New Hampshire - that track directly with 
where Republicans must perform well to win back the WhiteHouse next year.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for instance, regularly compares the 
moral imperative to treat drug addicts with rehabilitation to cancer 
treatments for smokers like his mother.

"No one came to me and said, 'Don't treat her; she got what she 
deserved,' " Christie told a small group of voters in New Hampshire. 
"We need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them."

Yet Christie and most other GOP candidates have distanced themselves 
from broader criminal justice reforms that could be construed as 
"soft" on crime. They have not vocally endorsed similar proposals to 
reform marijuana punishments, which disproportionately affect African 
Americans. Nearly all of the candidates have been silent on racial 
disparities in criminal penalties for other nonviolent drug crimes.

The candidates are walking a narrow but perhaps politically astute 
line, some say, between making inroads with the ballooning number of 
suburban and rural voters who have been touched by the country's 
exploding heroin crisis-yet not alienating Republican voters who fear 
that the roiling national debate about race and policing has left law 
enforcement exposed.

"Just because you have a smart approach to dealing with the heroin 
epidemic does not mean that you have to be soft on crime," said Dave 
Carney, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire, where the candidates have 
spoken most forcefully about providing new assistance for heroin 
addicts. "Respect for law enforcement in our party is a winning issue 
every day of the week- and twice on Sunday."

The rate of heroin deaths nearly quadrupled nationwide in a decade. 
Its growth has primarily happened outside of cities; according to one 
study, in the past decade, 90 percent of people who tried heroin for 
the first time were white, and 75 percent lived in the suburbs. In 
contrast, roughly half of new users in the 1970s were white, and half 
were black.

That may help explain why, even on issues in which there is growing 
conservative support - such as eliminating the sentencing disparity 
for crack and powder cocaine users or eliminating mandatory minimum 
sentences - GOP candidates have been hesitant to weigh in.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee responded dismissively to 
growing concerns about the racial disparities that stronger crack 
sentences have produced, noting that those sentences were initially 
advocated by black community leaders concerned about the crack 
cocaine epidemic in cities in the 1980s.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, writing about mandatory minimum 
sentences, warned in an essay for the Brennan Center for Justice this 
year that "reductions in sentences for drug crimes should be made 
with great care." And retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was the only 
GOP candidate in attendance at a criminal justice forum on Saturday, 
where he voiced support for ending mandatory minimum sentences.

According to Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, 
candidates have been slower to talk about broader criminal justice 
issues from a conservative perspective not because they are hostile 
to the idea, but because primary voters themselves are focused on a 
narrow set of issues-including, recently, the growing heroin epidemic.

"When you're running for office, you talk to people about things they 
already know. This is not a time to educate the electorate," Norquist 
noted, adding that, for example, the crack cocaine and powder cocaine 
discrepancy is not an issue most Republican voters are knowledgeable 
about. "If I thought they were hostile and indifferent [to criminal 
justice reforms], I'd be concerned." Norquist noted.

Nationally, the two parties are proceeding along separate and 
parallel paths on criminal justice reform. Forced to do so in part by 
the Black Lives Matter movement, each of the Democratic candidates 
has proposed detailed plans that address a wide range of drug and 
incarceration reforms. Republicans have focused their compassionate 
message on heroin but are more split on marijuana arrests and other reforms.

Christie has stopped short of supporting similar reforms when it 
comes to marijuana arrests, which overwhelmingly affect African Americans.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, as 
governor, Christie presided over a 12 percent increase in petty 
arrests for marijuana possession, which disproportionately affect 
minority, urban offenders even though whites use the drug at similar rates.

"There's a huge disparity in how Christie is sort of viewing drug 
reform or drug rehabilitation or providing those medical services or 
those other types of services to people who use heroin, which 
overwhelmingly are white middle-class people in New Jersey," said 
Newark activist Rashawn Davis. "It's young African American men like 
myself who suffer disproportionately from marijuana arrests in New Jersey."

Christie spokeswoman Sam Smith said Christie's support for reducing 
sentences for nonviolent drug offenders encompasses marijuana 
offenders. She said marijuana possession arrests in New Jersey 
"simply do not result in lengthy periods of incarceration" and that 
"often" they result in no incarceration at all. Simple marijuana 
possession charges in the state carry maximum penalties between six 
and 18 months.

Not every Republican candidate has drawn a line rhetorically with marijuana.

Most others, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Rubio, former Florida 
governor Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Huckabee and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, 
say they oppose legal recreational use - but they have taken a 
federalist approach by suggesting that the debate should be decided 
by the states.

Others, such as libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), have been more 
willing to address the role of marijuana arrests in the country's 
expensive incarceration system.

Paul also has taken a more sympathetic approach to the Black Lives 
Matter movement, saying that he supports "most" of the criminal 
justice changes that protesters have advocated. And he acknowledged 
that blacks are disproportionately affected by aggressive enforcement 
of marijuana laws and the racially skewed "disparity in sentencing in 
between crack cocaine and powder cocaine."

Except for Paul's appeal to libertarian purists - and younger voters 
on college campuses (including those at historically black 
universities) - the Republican field's positions match a challenging 
2016 political map in which they must solidify support among white 
voters in the nation's rural and suburban swaths. Democrats, 
meanwhile, are expected to hold or expand their dominance among urban 
and minority voters.

According to Carney, who has worked for more than 35 years in 
Republican primary politics in New Hampshire, the first time that 
drug-related crime logged in as a top-10 issue among voters was in 
April - around the same time that heroin deaths topped traffic 
fatalities in the state. That's one reason New Hampshire voters have 
been hearing more and more Republican candidates address the issue of 
drug addiction in sympathetic terms.

"The problem of heroin in New Hampshire is unbelievable," businessman 
Donald Trump told a crowd in Manchester.

"It's a horrible disease," said Cruz, who has addressed addiction on 
CNN, speaking about the death of his half-sister.

Guarding against the risk of being seen as soft on crime, Christie 
joined other candidates in speaking out against the Obama 
administration's release of 6,000 nonviolent drug offenders whose 
sentences were reduced under new sentencing guidelines - though he 
supports reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis (D), whose 1988 
presidential ambitions were halted by political attacks tied to his 
support for a weekend prisoner furlough program, noted that "it's 
always a risk" for politicians to support releasing prisoners.

"I applaud the fact we're finally getting a bipartisan consensus on 
reform," he said. "But unless we're doing a much better job of 
training people or treating addiction in prison, some people are 
going to come out unready for what they're facing."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom