(The Root) — To the extent that he is known to minority audiences at all, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is likely best known for his controversial criticism of the Civil Rights Act. But he may soon emerge with a much higher profile among black Americans, and a much more positive one, thanks in large part to his equally controversial comments on another issue: drug policy.
In an interview with Fox News, the Tea Party favorite had this to say about marijuana use: "I don't want to promote that, but I also don't want to put people in jail who make a mistake. There are a lot of young people who do this and then later on, in their 20s, they grow up and get married and they quit doing things like this. I don't want to put them in jail and ruin their lives." Ultimately, Paul feels it should be left to the states to determine drug laws.
During the interview, Paul and interviewer Chris Wallace also noted that based on existing laws, our current and most recent presidents could have ended up in jail, as opposed to the White House, because of alleged drug use. President Barack Obama wrote about experimenting with drugs in his memoir Dreams From My Father. President Bill Clinton became infamous for saying of his experience with marijuana, "but I didn't inhale," while President George W. Bush refused to admit having tried drugs when pressed about the matter during his campaign for the presidency. Bush would often say, "When I was young and irresponsible, I behaved young and irresponsibly," which led to wide speculation that he did, in fact, try drugs in his youth.
Despite President Obama's youthful flirtation with drugs, the Obama administration has repeatedly refused to acknowledge America's turning tide in the so-called war on drugs. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that a majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana use. This has become a more mainstream position in recent years as states began to decriminalize the drug, despite federal statute, and as more members of the medical community have affirmed the drug's medicinal benefits, particularly for those battling chronic or terminal ailments.
But while the president did sign a law to decrease the crack-versus-cocaine sentencing gap (which disproportionately affected minority drug offenders), the White House official position on any drugs has not been swayed. According to the White House website, "Recently, there have been increasing efforts to legalize marijuana. The Obama Administration has consistently reiterated its firm opposition to any form of drug legalization." The website goes on to explain, "Legalization would further burden the criminal justice system."
The site also argues that the number of people who actually wind up in prison solely because of marijuana possession is fairly minuscule. In other words, the argument is that keeping marijuana criminalized does not really hurt anyone. But tell that to those who have had their lives disrupted because they made the same choice the president once made.
In a 2010 column titled "Smoke and Horrors," New York Times columnist Charles Blow revealed just how devastating marijuana criminalization has been on communities of color. Blow writes, "According to a report … by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project for the Drug Policy Alliance and the N.A.A.C.P. and led by Prof. Harry Levine, a sociologist at the City University of New York: 'In the last 20 years, California made 850,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and half-a-million arrests in the last 10 years. The people arrested were disproportionately African-Americans and Latinos, overwhelmingly young people, especially men.' For instance, the report says that the City of Los Angeles "arrested blacks for marijuana possession at seven times the rate of whites."
But those details just scratch the surface regarding how these laws hurt minority communities. For instance, because of a law signed during the Clinton administration, federal financial aid for college can be canceled (pdf) because of an arrest or conviction for drug possession, meaning that a young student — like President Obama was when he once experimented with drugs — could face having his or her life doubly ruined: first by having a record and second by being unable to afford to pursue an education to get his or her life back on track.
In New York, where the police department's aggressive stop-and-frisk program has been shown to disproportionately target minorities, in particular young men, few guns (in comparison with how many men are stopped) have been confiscated as a result of the program. But a number of young men of color have ended up having their lives upended because of marijuana possession. To be clear, possession of marijuana is not a misdemeanor in New York; it's a violation. But publicly displaying marijuana is a misdemeanor — something that many of these young men have been coerced into doing upon being stopped by police.
Who knows how many of these young men had the same potential as the youthful President Obama, but will now find it virtually impossible to fulfill such potential because of misguided judgment on their part, as well as on the part of our leaders for criminalizing them in the first place?
After the Trayvon Martin tragedy, President Obama famously remarked that if he had a son, "he'd look like Trayvon." Yet there are millions of young men of color, who could also be his son, who are having their lives ruined daily for behavior no different from the president's own.
The question now becomes whether or not President Obama has the courage to become a voice for those young men in his second term or if he is going to continue to allow a Tea Partier who questions the Civil Rights Act to become a more credible voice for young men of color than the first black president.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.