Rep. Ron Paul's outspoken opposition to the war on drugs and federal drug prohibition sets him far apart from his opponents in the Republican primaries and President Obama. Paul's frank libertarianism - and his willingness to boldly step outside the Washington status quo - has not translated to primary victories, but has earned him a legion of young followers of all political stripes who want to see a change in the Republican Party and the way government deals with drugs.
"We're the DARE generation. We went to school and we were taught that marijuana would kill you, and then we found out that it didn't, and then a bunch of our friends got thrown into jail," said Irina Alexander, a leading member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "For us, it's a really, really personal issue."
Despite some close calls, Paul has yet to win a GOP primary. Paul is still a long shot, but Alexander said a lot of young people support him simply because of has stance on drug policies, and if he were to win the nomination, he could rob Obama of a portion of the youth vote the president took for granted in 2008.
"For a president to come and say that he supports drug prohibition and he supports continuing these awful policies that are hurting youth, its really feels like a personal attack to so many young people," Alexander said.
Obama, like most politicians, has supported keeping drugs like marijuana illegal. Paul does not, at least at the federal level. Washington, he argues, has no business forcing individual states to prohibit drugs and telling Americans and their doctors what they can and can't put into their bodies. Paul has also pointed out that the drug war unfairly punishes urban people of color because they are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than whites for drug crimes.
Like most international conflicts, Paul opposes US involvement in the drug wars waged in countries like Colombia and Mexico. Paul has called the war on drugs a "total failure" and a waste of money. Paul's Republican rivals, on the other hand, have all made vague proposals to ramp up the drug war in Mexico and beyond.
Last June, Paul joined a few liberal Democrats in introducing a bill in the House that would end the federal prohibition on marijuana and allow states to craft their own laws on marijuana sale and cultivation. Like similar marijuana efforts Paul endorsed in the past, the bill failed to gain any traction, despite recent polls that show about half of Americans now support legalizing weed.
Medical marijuana laws in 16 states technically violate federal law, which classifies weed as a Schedule I drug that, like heroin, has no medical value and a high potential for abuse. This legal inconsistency has led to controversial federal crackdowns on pot farms and medicinal dispensaries in a number of states under the Obama and past administrations.
The medical marijuana controversy exemplifies Paul's position. Paul is not only a big supporter of states' right to autonomy when it comes to drug policy; he also believes that the Washington political establishment is far behind the rest of the country when it comes to drug policy.
In an effort to make the GOP candidates address an issue so often ignored on the campaign trail, Alexander and SSDP activists confronted each major candidate on the campaign trail with a video camera and simple questions about their stance on drug policy. Mitt Romney proved elusive while Santorum and Gingrich were outright inconsistent. Paul, on the other hand, was completely at ease with the young activists, telling them that, "the only thing we should prohibit is violence."
When Alexander asked why his opponents avoid talking about drug policy, Paul said he thinks they are "easily intimidated" and think that, "people are going to hold it against them if they talk sensibly about drug policy."
"The interaction was just so different on so many levels," Alexander said, comparing Paul to his opponents. "Instead of him trying to run away and trying to, you know, stressing out about his answer and freaking out, he very calmly answered our questions and gave us the most thorough answers of any of the candidates whatsoever."
Paul's willingness to openly support de-escalating the war on drugs and ending prohibition sets him apart from most politicians and gives drug reformers like Alexander hope. His stance on drug policy has earned him support from young people and progressives, although they must ignore his views on abortion and federal funding for just about anything. When it comes to drugs, Paul is a bold maverick, and according to some, the voice of the future.