Four decades after Republican President Richard Nixon coined the phrase “war on drugs,” many GOP presidential candidates are urging an end to one of its central tenets, agreeing with Democrats to treat low-level drug offenders rather than incarcerate them. The Washington Post says the Republicans are selective about who is deserving of their compassion. A few GOP contenders have advocated treating the nation's growing heroin epidemic as a health crisis, not a criminal one. Most stop short of advocating the same approach to other drug laws, notably those involving marijuana and crack cocaine, which disproportionately affect African Americans.
Such views highlight the resonance of the opiate epidemic and a persistent racial and geographic divide in politics. The heroin epidemic has overwhelmingly hit whites. It has also skyrocketed to the top of voters' lists of political priorities in rural states, suburbs and the early voting state of New Hampshire, places that track with where Republicans must perform well to win back the White House. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie compares the moral imperative to treat drug addicts with rehabilitation to cancer treatments for smokers like his mother. “Just because you have a smart approach to dealing with the heroin epidemic does not mean that you have to be soft on crime,” said Dave Carney, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee responded dismissively to concerns about the racial disparities that stronger crack sentences have produced, noting that those sentences were advocated by black community leaders concerned about the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s.