Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) discussed his opposition to the war on drugs during an interview on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” Wednesday night, with a particular focus on how federal policy has disproportionately targeted racial minorities.
Colbert asked if Paul identified as a “libertarian Republican” and about his general views on marijuana and legalization. Paul responded, “I don’t tell people what to do with their freedom. You ought to be able to pretty much do what you want to do as long as you don’t hurt somebody else.”
“I favor letting the states make the decision,” Paul said. “We’ve got about 28 states that have legalized medical marijuana, but we now have half a dozen states that have legalized recreational marijuana, and really the federal government ought to just stay out of it.”
Acknowledging that he was “very much” a libertarian, the Kentucky senator said, “People ought to be able to make these decisions. Adults ought to be able to make decisions on what they do, what they drink, what they smoke.”
Colbert asked how Paul felt about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ crusade against marijuana legalization in various states and against its general use. “Imagine Congress, and imagine some octogenarians that just watched ‘Reefer Madness’ for the first time,” Paul responded, critiquing Sessions’ 20th century-style position on cannabis. “In 1937, they just watched it, on the old 8-mm reels … and they think it’s the gateway to the end of the world, and so they think they should lock these people up,”
“It’s very expensive to lock people up, but it also ruins young people’s lives,” Paul said.
The senator then went into detail with Colbert about how he believes drug laws hurt minorities:
And one of my complaints about the war on drugs is that four out of five people being arrested are black or brown. It’s poor people. It’s people that don’t have the resources to get a good attorney that are getting arrested. Even though when you look at statistics, whites smoke marijuana just as much as black or Hispanic [people]. And yet when you look at the prisons, they’re full of Hispanics and African Americans, because we disproportionately arrest poor people, and there are disproportionately more poor people among minorities.
“It’s stark,” Paul said. “You go to our prisons, and then when people get out, you can’t vote again, you can’t be hired again.”
This led to a related discussion on the restoration of constitutional rights to ex-felons, an issue Paul has long taken the lead on in the Senate and particularly among Republicans. Colbert asked Paul if those who have served their sentences should be allowed to vote. “Yes,” Paul replied, to enthusiastic audience applause. The senator noted that he has lobbied his home state of Kentucky’s state legislature to restore voting rights to ex-felons, as well as co-sponsored federal legislation with former Senator Harry Reid (D-N.V.) to do the same at the national level.
“It should be about second chances,” Paul said. “Most of us, for religious reasons, believe people should have second chances. I think the law should give you a second chance.”
These are not new positions for the senator. “The war on drugs has become the most racially disparate outcome that you have in the entire country,” Paul said in November 2014. “Our prisons are full of black and brown kids. Three-fourths of the people in prison are black or brown.”
Paul said in 2015 when he launched his Republican presidential primary campaign, “I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally, and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed.”
According to the United States Sentencing Commission, black offenders “made up 26.3 percent of drug offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in 2012,” but they accounted for approximately 35 percent of the drug offenders who still faced mandatory minimum penalties at sentencing.
Paul also discussed being assaulted on his own property last year, Wednesday’s train wreck in West Virginia involving many Republican members of Congress and his concerns about potential government surveillance abuse, particularly regarding the ongoing investigation of possible collusion between Russia and Trump presidential campaign and White House officials.