Irina Alexander is a young activist with a college education. When she approached Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich at a New Hampshire town hall and asked if she should be arrested for being a recreational drug user, Gingrich told her, “… no, you shouldn't be arrested for being a recreational drug user, but you also shouldn't do it.”
Does this mean Gingrich could support drug decriminalization and deescalating the war on drugs and people who use them? Well, no. According to Alexander, in earlier remarks at the town hall, Gingrich said he did not support decriminalization, but he changed his tune when he was confronted face to face by someone who could be thrown in jail for her personal choice.
“I think [the candidates] try to say what they think makes them sound good, but then once you actually confront them and make them answer the question and focus on the human impact of the actual policies they're talking about, they get all jumbled up because it doesn't makes sense,” Alexander said.
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Drug reform is a tough issue for politicians to embrace, and if Alexander's experience on the campaign trail is any evidence, it's also a tough issue for them talk about.
“Drug policy affects every single part of our society and so many people think it's a time for a change in drug policy, yet it's avoided, it's a taboo subject that people are scared to talk about,” Alexander said.
Candidates don't want to look soft on crime, and in the opinion of some, immoral behavior, even as the sheer number of American's who regularly use drugs – some 21.8 million according to a 2009 government estimate – suggest that drugs and the social problems that go with them are here to stay regardless of government policy.
With this in mind, clean needles are perhaps the best bellwether issue for Gingrich's position on drugs. In 1998, Gingrich voted for a bill that banned federal funding to syringe-exchange clinics. Syringe-exchange clinics provide intravenous drug users with clean needles and safely dispose of used ones. The Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and a large body of research recognize that giving drug users access to clean needles does not promote drug usage, but does reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that syringe programs benefit society as a whole by preventing the spread of disease, Congress has blocked federal funding to syringe programs for two decades. For conservatives like Gingrich, allowing tax dollars to pay for drug paraphernalia could sound like political suicide, even if science says it is the right thing to do. Democrats in Congress succeeded in using their majority to end the ban in 2009, but Republicans reinstated the ban with a line item in the train-wreck spending bill passed at the last minute in December 2011.
Gingrich, who served 20 years in Congress, does not have the most consistent track record on drugs. In 1981, he introduced legislation that would have allowed doctors to prescribe marijuana as medicine. A letter from Gingrich praising a report on the potential benefits of medical weed even appeared in the 1982 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Gingrich has since become a critic of the medical marijuana movement, and in stark contrast to his earlier weed proposal, in 1996, Gingrich introduced a bill that would have imposed life sentences on drug smugglers and the death penalty for anyone caught bringing as little as two ounces of marijuana across the border more than once.
These conflicting chunks of Gingrich's past recently made headlines, prompting libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson to go on the offensive.
“This [is] from someone who has admitted his own past marijuana use, saying 'it was a sign we were alive and in graduate school,'” Johnson said. “We are talking about millions of Americans' lives here, and having positions ranging from embracing medical marijuana to the death penalty for possessing a small amount of that same substance is astounding both in its hypocrisy and its inconsistency.”
In a November 2011 interview with Yahoo! News, Gingrich was asked if he still supported executing drug smugglers. In true drug-warrior fashion, Gingrich said he would support executing drug cartel leaders. But instead of talking about Mexico, Gingrich brought up Singapore.
“Places like Singapore have been the most successful at doing that, Gingrich said. “They've been very draconian. And they have communicated with great intention that they intend to stop drugs from coming into their country.”
Despite criticism from United Nations human rights officials, Singapore continues to hand down mandatory death sentences for 20 drug-related offenses, according to Human Rights Watch. Other nonviolent drug crimes carry a prison sentence with mandatory cane beatings.
Yes, Gingrich's Singapore comment is scary, but the rest of the Yahoo! News interview reflects a more mainstream philosophy on drug policy – for a Republican. After four decades of the war on drugs, Gingrich still believes the government can convince America's millions of drug users to just say no.
As president, Gingrich said he would work to “minimize drug use in America” and believed the government should be “much more aggressive about drug policy.” While he didn't think “actually locking up users is a very good thing,” he did propose squeezing the pockets of drug users by ramping up drug testing and preventing those who test positive from receiving benefits such as unemployment benefits and food stamps. Conservative lawmakers in at least 36 states have recently pushed legislation to test welfare recipients with mixed results.
Despite his strange track record in Congress, Gingrich's campaign comments on drugs are par for the course in a GOP primary. Gingrich's short conversation with Alexander and his early support for medical marijuana suggest he has seen the light on the different side of the drug policy debate, but when it comes to politics, expect Gingrich to play it safe and continue the status quo of endless war against a sometimes uncomfortable fact of life.