What Pete Buttigieg Really Said About Drug Possession

He was right, and the debate moderator was wrong.

New Hampshire Democratic debate moderator Monica Hernandez asked former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg what seemed like a tough question about an allegedly radical stance on drug decriminalization.

Hernandez, an anchor at Manchester-area TV station WMUR, wanted to know how Buttigieg would deal with the drugs fueling the opiate epidemic, which has hit New Hampshire especially hard.

“You have called for the decriminalization of all drugs. Does that include heroin, meth and cocaine, some of the drugs that have contributed to this crisis?” Hernandez asked Buttigieg in the presidential primary debate Friday night.

But Buttigieg denied that that was his position, claiming instead that he would employ criminal prosecution without putting people behind bars.

“No, what I’ve called for is that incarceration should no longer be the response to drug possession,” he said.

Buttigieg was correct. 

His campaign website states that “at the federal level,” Buttigieg would “eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses and apply these reductions retroactively, and legalize marijuana and expunge past convictions.”

Hernandez may have been under the impression that Buttigieg supports decriminalization of drugs because a December article in the libertarian news outlet Reason framed his position that way. 

But the article was based on an interview that Buttigieg conducted with the Des Moines Register editorial board in December in which he specifically distinguished between criminalization and incarceration.

“I would not have said even five years ago what I believe now, which is that incarceration should not even be a response to drug possession,” he told the newspaper.

Buttigieg clarified Friday night that he would continue to use incarceration as a federal tool for prosecuting the production and sale of drugs, though not for possession.

There are a number of ways in which Buttigieg could prosecute drug possession as a crime while taking incarceration off the table. He could, for example, make it the exclusive province of drug courts that allow drug users to complete treatment programs in lieu of jail time.

Buttigieg also highlighted the role of pharmaceutical companies, which typically operate within the letter of the law as they exacerbate the opioid crisis.

“Some of this has been driven by companies that were acting irresponsibly with substances that were lawful,” he said, drawing applause from the audience at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. “It’s why in South Bend, we sued those companies to hold them accountable.”