Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke has announced a wide-sweeping plan aimed at ending the War on Drugs and helping those affected by it. In his plan that he laid out last week, the former El Paso congressman called for clemency for everyone in the country currently being held on possession charges, along with a new federal tax that would go toward a “Drug War Justice Grant” to help those who have been affected.

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"We need to not only end the prohibition on marijuana but also repair the damage done to the communities of color disproportionately locked up in our criminal justice system or locked out of opportunity because of the War on Drugs," O'Rourke said in a statement. O’Rourke’s political career has long been intertwined with his wish to end the War on Drugs through political reform and he is showing that he wants to keep those promises if he gets elected.

What is O’Rourke Proposing?

Not only does he want to legalize the drug on a national level, but O’Rourke is seeking to repair the damage that has been done in the decades since the War on Drugs began. The War on Drugs is a campaign that began in 1971, during President Nixon’s term, that began a series of harsh, zero-tolerance policies to try and remove drugs from the streets.

The “war” has cost over $1 trillion since it began, with an estimated cost of $9.2 million dollars a day being spent to incarcerate people for drug-related crimes and over 1.3 million people arrested on possession charges each year. Not only are Black Americans four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges than their white peers, but that despite equal rates of usage, Black Americans are six-times more likely to be jailed for drug offenses than white people.

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Not only has the program affected marijuana policies in this country, but the opioid epidemic and those suffering from it are also being impacted, slowing down the help that is needed to fix it. O’Rourke points to these factors and many more in his calling for a specialized grant that would go directly toward those who have suffered from the War on Drugs.

Beto O'Rourke Source: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America - Beto O'Rourke
The funds from the grant, which would be collected from a federal tax created through the legalization of cannabis, would go toward previously locked up in state and federal prisons for nonviolent pot offenses.

The amount would be determined based on how much time they have served and what offenses they have served for. In his calls for legalization, O’Rourke also proposed leniency for those more likely to have suffered from previous drug laws, by waiving “licensing fees for producing, distributing, or selling marijuana for low-income individuals who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”

His plan calls for specific reforms to reinvest in communities that have been targeted by drug laws, including communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, “including investments in housing and employment support, substance use and mental health treatment, peer and recovery support services, life skills training, victims’ services.”

O’Rourke also wants to see that people in those communities receive special training and opportunities to help them create more jobs as well as access to legal and training services. In the same proposal, O’Rourke called for a regulatory system similar to that of the one used for alcohol, meaning that an ID would be needed in order to purchase it.  While another candidate, Cory Booker, is also calling for clemency, this is one of the most wide-spread policy programs to come out regarding marijuana from a presidential candidate so far.

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What is Beto’s Past on Marijuana?

Since the beginning of his political career, O’Rourke has made marijuana reform one of his primary objectives. In 2009, when he was a city councilor for El Paso, Texas, he came out with a plan to not fight the drug cartel problem with fire, but to remove the problem entirely through legalization. Then, long before marijuana became a popular and widespread talking point on the left, he called for decriminalization “an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics,” according to The Intercept.

His calls were met with harsh criticism and the bill was shut out by efforts from Dem. Representative Silvestre Reyes, who convinced the mayor to keep the bill from passing. Two years later, O’Rourke would go on to challenge Reyes for his seat and win.

During his time in office, Beto voted six times in favor of marijuana legalization and reform in varying degrees, and was a constant voice in favor of reform on the topic. In 2011, he co-wrote a book entitled: Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico, which outlined his reasoning for ending the War on Drugs through showing the effects it has had on people.

When he defended his bill, he stated that “If our drug laws were different, I will absolutely guarantee you that our body count would be different.” This was one of the earliest calls for decriminalization and reform regarding marijuana laws in America. He was endorsed by NORML in 2018 during his failed Senate run for his stance on marijuana, receiving a “B+” grade from the group.

How is O’Rourke Doing in the Race?

While his policies may be strong, his support isn’t doing as well. In a CNN poll in Nevada and South Carolina, two important primary states put out Sept. 29, he is polling at just around 2 percent, which is just enough to get him on the debate stages but puts him near the bottom of the more than a dozen candidate pack still running. In fact, his drug reform policies are not even what is catching the eyes of voters, but his gun reform policies are. While it seems likely that he is a longshot for the nomination, his impact on the race and whether his policies will be adopted remain to be seen.