Rand Paul gets it right on drugs, at least

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We've all heard the old saying that even a broken clock is right twice a day. We've all nodded our heads -- sometimes vigorously -- in agreement with someone we're at odds with most of the time.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has always been that person for me. Mr. Paul is a hero to the Tea Party, though his politics are more libertarian than reflexively right-wing. Like his father and a sizable minority of college sophomores, Mr. Paul is a devotee of the Objectivist philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand.

Still, I appreciate the fact that Rand Paul makes occasional efforts to broaden his appeal beyond the guns, God and guillotine crowd in the GOP. Though he's a soul brother to lunatics in the House who believe they can blackmail President Barack Obama into undoing the Affordable Care Act by holding the debt ceiling increase hostage, Mr. Paul is also capable of engaging in a sane discourse about race and crime that would make a lot of Democrats nervous.

Case in point is Mr. Paul's thoughtful testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Mr. Paul called for an end to mandatory minimum sentencing laws because of the disproportionate impact these laws have on African-Americans and other minorities.

The fact that Mr. Paul is able to say things that President Obama can't about the racist nature of the law, as it pertains to drug sentencing, is the kind of irony future historians will be feasting on for decades.

"If I told you that one out of three African-American males is [prohibited] by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow, 50 years ago," Mr. Paul said at the beginning of his testimony.

"Yet today a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The war on drugs has disproportionately affected young black males. The ACLU reports that blacks are four to five times more likely to be convicted for drug possession, although surveys indicate that blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate.

"The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of the people in prison for drug offenses are African-American or Latino," Mr. Paul said as heads craned in the Senate chamber, looking for the skilled ventriloquist responsible for throwing such radical words into the Kentucky senator's mouth. A Republican who favorably quotes the ACLU and indicts white kids in the same breath is unique in American politics.

"Barack Obama expressed similar concerns before he was elected president. Since then, not so much, although his attorney general recently took up the theme, almost five years into Obama's presidency.

"More important, Obama has done little to address the injustices caused by the war on drugs, aside from signing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. That law, which reduced the irrational sentencing disparity between the smoked and snorted forms of cocaine, had almost unanimous support in Congress, so it's not as if Obama took much of a risk by supporting it.

"And having declared that thousands of crack offenders are serving excessively long sentences under the old rules, he has used his clemency power to free exactly one of them."

Mr. Paul was referring to Eugenia Jennings, an Illinois woman sentenced to 22 years in prison for selling "a handful of crack cocaine" to a police informant. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., helped persuade the president to shorten her sentence by 12 years, releasing her from prison with the concurrence of the prosecutors and judge involved in her case.

"I'm glad the president has such great compassion," Mr. Paul said with a hint of sarcasm, "because he's admitted, like a lot of other individuals who are now elected to office, that at one time he made mistakes as a youth. And I think what a tragedy if he had gone to prison. America would not have gotten to see Barack Obama as a leader.

"The injustice of mandatory minimums is impossible to ignore when you hear the stories of the victims," Mr. Paul said. "There is no justice here. It is wrong and needs to change. ... Since mandatory sentencing began, America's prison population has exploded, quadrupled. America now jails a higher percentage of citizens than any other country in the world, at the staggering cost of $80 billion a year."

Sure, this sounds like a cynical appeal for minority support he'll need when he runs against Hillary Clinton in 2016, but I believe it is heartfelt. He may be wrong on everything else, but he's bolder than the president on this issue.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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