On March 14, former Congress member Beto O’Rourke announced his much-speculated bid for the presidency in 2020. Drug policy, although not one of his defining issues, is tucked amongst O’Rourke’s other key progressive talking points.
Joining a busy cohort of fellow Democratic candidates, O’Rourke has positioned himself as the candidate to represent the hot-button issues of immigration and borders. At the iconic February rival rallies responding to the alleged “humanitarian crisis” at the southern border, O’Rourke received a national platform to highlight his stance on these issues.
“We are not safe because of walls but in spite of walls,” O’Rourke proclaimed at the rally.
But O’Rourke’s three-term legislative history is meek, and he has mostly focused on sponsoring bills related to immigration and veterans’ affairs—the latter of which he emphasizes in his announcement video.
Neither has he successfully passed any bills in the House of Representatives that chip away at drug prohibition or mass incarceration. He has, however, made ideological commitments that may suggest he would pursue such reforms if he were to make it to the Oval Office.
O’Rourke has recognized that the criminal justice system is upholding a “New Jim Crow,” a comment made while speaking at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college near Houston. At a town hall held in a Dallas black church during his senate campaign, O’Rourke applied the term, popularized by author and civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, to the drug war.
“This justification for taking the lives of people, and disproportionately people of color on illegal drugs in this country has rightfully been called the new Jim Crow. It has kept people out of civic life in this country,” said O’Rourke.
Further back, O’Rourke has questioned the legitimacy of prohibition during his days in city government. In 2009, while serving on the El Paso City Council, O’Rourke introduced a resolution—which garnered unanimous support but was later vetoed by the mayor—to encourage “an open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics.” He clarified that he was “not advocating the use of illegal drugs” but rather wanted to recognize that the War on Drugs has been a “complete failure.”
In his first campaign trail speech, he called for the decriminalization of marijuana, particularly from a racial justice perspective.
According to Vanity Fair‘s latest profile of O’Rourke, the former El Paso council member “publish[ed] [in 2011] a political tract titled “Dealing Drugs and Death,” arguing for drug legalization to curtail the cartel wars that had de-stabilized the border.”
As for other criminal justice issues, O’Rourke supports “end[ing] the broken system of cash bail that punishes people for being poor.” In a Houston Chronicle op-ed, O’Rourke wrote about his own personal experiences with the criminal justice system, once being charged with attempted forcible entry and another time with driving-while-intoxicated. These charges were dismissed. He notes that his own privilege as a white man influenced the minimal impact his run-ins had on the rest of his life and career.
“The chance that I had, and which I have made the most of, is denied to too many of our fellow Texans, particularly those who don’t look like me or have access to the same opportunities that I did,” he wrote.
While he has a popular following, exemplified by his robust grassroots fundraising efforts for his 2018 Senate campaign and moniker as the “Left’s Dream Boy,” as the GOP dubbed him today, others are skeptical of what he can actually get done, or whether he is even the right fit for a party that is moving towards centering women and people of color.
Screenshot: Beto O’Rourke