Updated: Aug 30
Editor’s Note: With his unexpected win in South Carolina last Saturday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich just rocketed to the center of the Republican stage. Guest blogger Kelsey Harclerode’s examination of Rick Perry’s record on drugs drove him out of the race last Thursday. What effect will her withering gaze have on the newly resurgent Newt?
Photo (and Shaky Hands) of the Author
I have something to admit…Newt Gingrich and I are practically inseparable. You see, we attended mass together at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception and now we are BFF. Points readers can rest assured that I am definitely most qualified to write this profile (and of course there is no conflict of interest!). Below I present not merely my own personal knowledge of the candidate, but a carefully researched brief on a bevy of drug policies that former House Speaker Gingrich has sponsored, supported– and then opposed.
Is Gingrich a flip-flopper on drug issues the way he is on religious affiliation? A few flashbacks may help us answer that question: in 1981, Gingrich co-sponsored a bill with Representative Barney Frank that attempted to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. The bill failed, but Gingrich continued to publicly support medical marijuana in a 1982 open letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association(JAMA), which praised that organization for discussing weed’s medical benefits and lambasted outdated federal policy that “deprives [patients] of medical supervision and denies them access to a regulated medical substance.”
Alive--and Totally Baked-- in the 1970s
Gingrich’s support for marijuana did not end with medical uses, either, but extended into the recreational realm. In 1995, he not only admitted to smoking marijuana during his college days, but (unlike the chastened Rick Santorum) also praised the pleasures of pot, stating that smoking “was a sign we were alive and in graduate school in that era.”
But if dedicated support for an issue (whether revolutionary or not) is usually a commendable aspect in Washington, we can hardly call Newt a weed warrior. He not only reversed his position but— based on a conversation he had with parents concerned that legal medical marijuana would suggest to their children that smoking pot was acceptable—he did the wildest 180 imaginable. In 1995 (the same year he praised the euphoric dimensions of pot smoking), then House Speaker Gingrich suggested that drug smugglers should face the death penalty because “If you import a commercial quantity of illegal drugs it is because you have made the personal decision that you are prepared to get rich by destroying our children.” One year later, he introduced H.R. 4170, the Drug Importer Death Penalty Act, which demanded that any individual caught bringing two ounces or more of marijuana into the United States face a life sentence or the death penalty. (No comment from Newt yet on a recent study that found that the legalization of medical marijuana did not increase teen use.) On the 2012 campaign trail, Gingrich has stood by his 1996 bill and gone so far as to praise the “draconian” laws in Singapore, where possession of just over a pound of marijuana earns you the label “drug-trafficker” and a quick ticket to death by hanging.
Amsterdam: Bad Role Model
His explained his now unambiguous opposition to legalization in a 2009 speech in Florida, where he argued that “Every place drugs are legalized, the net effect is more people on welfare, more people who are dependent, more people with bad health care outcomes, fewer people who are able workers able to pay attention on the job, and a drain of money into illegality, because immediately behind legalized marijuana comes cocaine and heroin.” Gingrich has further explained that policy around marijuana, whether medicinal or recreational, should be constructed at the federal level because of the potential interstate transport of the drug.
Singapore: Good Role Model
During the same interview in which he admired Singapore’s drug laws, Gingrich expounded on his current belief that America needs a more aggressive drug policy. He expressed his support for the War on Drugs, for stiffer economic penalties for drug offenses, and for more—much more—drug testing. In fact, he emphatically supported testing every individual who sought federal aid: “unemployment compensation, food stamps, you name it.” (No mention of Pell Grant or Fulbright Fellowship recipients, but the Financial Aid Office should probably get ready!)
This hardline stance builds on a 2009 interview on The O’Reilly Factor, where Gingrich stated that if he were President, he would end American “funding” of Mexican drug cartels by establishing a permanent and larger border patrol that would effectively embargo their trade. The need for a stronger border is made clear in a Gingrich quote in Senator Marco Rubio’s 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future: “fueled by the global nature of the drug trade, gangs are increasingly international operations. With the infrastructure in place to move and distribute drugs across the border, the danger exists that they will use their network to, for the right price, traffic terrorists and weapons into the country.” In other words, being anti-drug is no longer just about the children, it’s about the terrorists.
While he was Speaker of the House, Gingrich not only reversed his position on medical marijuana, he also worked to ensure that Clinton-supported needle exchange funding did not see the light of the day. Expressing his disgust with the program (or maybe thinking back to those grad school days when he was really “alive”?), the former Speaker commented, “What’s a little heroin or cocaine among friends?” But despite his opposition to harm reduction and his boundless enthusiasm for execution, Gingrich has voiced support for alternative sentencing in lieu of imprisonment for non-violent drug offenses. Earlier this primary season, he explained that he is not for locking up every drug user, but instead believes we should find ways to sanction those that are addicted and provide them with medical assistance, such as detox programs. (What’s a little buprenorphine among friends?)
This zigging and zagging across policy stances should make for interesting talking points if Gingrich continues to do well in the primaries. And seeing that he just beat apparent front runner Mitt Romney in South Carolina, and that every Republican winner there since 1980 has gone on to win the nomination, the possibility of Gingrich-Obama showdown just got a lot more plausible.