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WATCH: Republicans — Then And Now — Talking About Drug Addiction

Presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a town hall-style campaign event in Hampton, N.H., on Sunday.
Robert F. Bukaty
Presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a town hall-style campaign event in Hampton, N.H., on Sunday.

If you pay attention to way Republican presidential candidates are talking about drug abuse, it seems vastly different from the way the party leaders of the past talked about the issue.

Perhaps the new, more compassionate stance was synthesized best by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during Saturday's GOP debate.

Christie touted his record of keeping drug abusers out of jails.

"This is a disease. It's not a moral failing," Christie said. Before we get to what it means, here are some videos for you to compare and contrast:

Gov. Chris Christie, Feb. 6, 2016: "Sixteen-year-old heroin addicted drug girl on the floor of the county lockup — I'm pro-life for her life."

President Ronald Reagan, Aug. 4, 1986: "We will refuse to let drug users blame their behavior on others."

Gov. Jeb Bush, Jan. 5, 2016: "We need to eliminate the stigmas and the barriers... where they're not embarrassed to say that I have an illness that I am now on the road to recovery on."

President George W. Bush, Feb. 12, 2002: "Make no mistake about it, if you're buying illegal drugs in America, it is likely that money is going to end up in the hands of terrorist organizations."

Carly Fiorina, Sept. 16, 2015: "We do need criminal justice reform... It's clearly not working."

President George H.W. Bush, Sept. 5, 1989: "We need more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors."

The big question is, of course, whether the rhetorical shift will translate into action on the policy front.

It's worth noting that this shift started years ago. In 2012, for example, the war on drugs was mentioned only in passing in the party platform. In 2008, it was given a whole section.

Mark Kleiman, a professor at the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University who has written books about the war on drugs, said he believes the change in tone "is at least partly genuine."

"It matches a broader change in public attitudes, [thought it's] hard to guess how much impact it will have on policy," Kleiman said. "Republicans in Congress continue to block even minor sentencing reforms, and [Republican Sen. Ted] Cruz in particular turned hard-right on that issue after he announced for President. It's a safe bet that in practice Republicans overall will remain more wedded to harsh policies than Democrats."

Marc Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a conservative justice reform project that has advocated for treatment instead of jail time for drug users, said they have been "very gratified" with the talk from GOP candidates.

"We believe in personal responsibility, but we also believe in redemption," he said. "Thus, it is not inconsistent to believe that the use of illegal drugs is destructive and should be discouraged, but at the same time prison is generally not the answer."

Curtis Marez, who has studied the racial dimensions of the issue at UC San Diego, told us via email that he doesn't see a broad shift here.

He explains that the Republican candidates are looking toward New Hampshire, which is currently in the middle of a heroin addiction epidemic, so most of the calls for a different approach have centered on that drug and "not on the criminalization of marijuana and cocaine, which has disproportionately affected communities of color." In other words, this has become a white issue.

Also, Marez said, this talk of redemption and second chances "fits right in with conservative narratives of sin and redemption."

He wrote:

"Recall how George W. Bush's stories about overcoming alcohol abuse with the help of God endeared him to his base; Bush also supported faith-based drug and alcohol treatment programs. This suggests a conservative model of treatment couched in terms of sin and salvation rather diseases and cures--which is in keeping with certain conservative ideas about religion and individual responsibility. From that perspective, drug abuse remains a moral failing but one that can be better addressed in treatment than in prison. But again the key point is that so far, such a model of drug treatment has been more inclined to find possibilities for redemption among white drug users than among drug users of color."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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