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Pete Buttigieg wants to end the war on weed—but not in South Bend

January 21, 2020
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Mayor Pete Buttigieg: He talks a good legalization game, but his record in South Bend isn't so impressive. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg says all the right things about cannabis legalization and criminal justice reform while out campaigning for the Democratic nomination.

But a close examination of his time as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, shows that his record in public office fails to live up to his lofty campaign rhetoric.

Most critically, he’s done little to stop rampant racial disparities in cannabis arrests during his time running a city of 102,000 people—and he forced South Bend’s first black police chief out of office amid pressure from a group of allegedly racist white police officers.

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High achiever with a stellar resume

In a crowded Democratic primary field, Buttigieg stood out for his youth, his political inexperience, and his service as a combat veteran.

A Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Buttigieg began his civilian professional life at McKinsey & Co., working in Chicago for the high-powered consulting firm.

In 2009, two years after finishing his economics degree at Oxford, he joined the Navy Reserve. Even while serving in the Reserve and working for McKinsey, Buttigieg found time to run against Indiana’s incumbent state treasurer in the 2010 election.

He lost that race—it wasn’t even close—but the next year came roaring back to win the South Bend mayor’s race. At age 29, Buttigieg became the youngest mayor in the United States of a city with a population above 100,000. Two years later, he took a leave of absence to deploy to Afghanistan, where he was awarded multiple medals while serving in combat.

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Played the privilege card at Harvard

In recent interviews, Buttigieg has acknowledged that his impressive career path might have been derailed had he been saddled with a criminal arrest for cannabis possession. He said this during a sit-down talk at SXSW in Austin last year:

I was standing outside my dorm [at Harvard]. I was on my way home from a party or something. I ran into a friend and he had an acquaintance with him, and we were chatting, and at some point I noticed that she was smoking a joint. And just out of curiosity—there was like a little bit left—I was like ‘Oh, is that…’ And she handed it to me. At exactly, precisely this instant, a police car drives by—university police—and I thought, well, that’s gotta go.”

Buttigieg says he tossed the roach over his shoulder, but the campus police officer witnessed him in the act.

That led to “Harvard Pete” getting searched and lectured on the spot—but nothing worse.

Buttigieg has since pointed to the story as the moment he learned about white male privilege.

“A lot of people probably had the exact same experience and would not have been believed,” he said. “[They] would have been a lot worse than yelled at, and would not have slept in their own beds that night—and maybe would have been derailed in their college career because of it.”

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‘No thanks, I’m on the clock’

Buttigieg says he’s smoked cannabis “a handful of times in his life,” but it was “a long time ago.” In October, while touring a state-licensed cannabis store in Las Vegas, he declined to make a purchase.

“I’m on the clock,” he joked, “and it’s going to be a long work day for me.”

Buttigieg did take the opportunity to discuss the issue in some depth, though. He touched on everything from the stark racial disparities in marijuana arrests to the promise of cannabis as a treatment for PTSD among military veterans.

Drug decrim part of his ‘Douglass Plan’

More broadly, Buttigieg has made cannabis legalization—and the decriminalization of all drugs—a central part of his Douglass Plan, which his campaign calls “a proposal for comprehensively and intentionally dismantling racist structures and systems, fueled by an investment of unprecedented scale in the freedom and self-determination of Black Americans.”

He has also called for reducing incarceration in America by 50%, without a rise in crime, by “using clemency powers, working with states, ending incarceration as a response to drug possession, and when we legalize marijuana… [having] expungements as well for people whose incarceration is doing more harm than the original offense did.”

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Those policy proposals put him near the front of the Democratic pack on drug reform—not as progressive and proven as Bernie Sanders, but far from the retrograde positions of Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg.

Here’s the thing, though. When Mayor Pete had the chance to put those ideas into action in South Bend, he punted. When it comes to drug reform, Buttigieg has so far been all talk and no action.

Black and white in South Bend

When the Intercept’s Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy dug deep into Pete Buttigieg’s record on cannabis while serving as the mayor of South Bend, they found a legacy that clearly doesn’t live up to the kind of systemic change promised in the Douglass Plan.

In fact, during Buttigieg’s time in office, South Bend’s “black residents have been far more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than its white residents,” Grim and Lacy wrote. “[And] that disparity in South Bend under Buttigieg is in fact worse than in the rest of the country, or even the rest of Indiana.”

According to law enforcement data, between 2012 and 2018 black people were 4.3 times as likely to be arrested in South Bend for marijuana possession as white people— despite using cannabis at roughly the same rate. That same disparity was slightly less (3.4x) statewide and (3.7x) nationally.

The disparities in South Bend under Mayor Pete extended beyond simple possession arrests. Despite being a city with a 63% white majority, 22 black people were arrested for distributing cannabis in South Bend in 2018, versus only four white people arrested on the same charge.

A Buttigieg campaign spokesperson addressed the issue in this statement to Leafly:

“While mayors don’t make the law related to drug possession, Pete has been an outspoken advocate for legalization because he recognizes the disparate impact these laws have in devastating Black communities and the lives of Black Americans, particularly young Black men. It is also why he’s one of the only candidates to make eliminating incarceration for drug possession part of his presidential platform, and it’s why he’s proposed legalizing marijuana, expunging past convictions, reducing sentences for other drug offenses—and applying those reductions retroactively.”

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Mistakes were made

Meanwhile, Buttigieg says that his “first serious mistake as mayor” was initially supporting South Bend Police Chief Darryl Boykins in a controversy over potentially illegal recordings that were made of some police phone lines—a policy which preceded Boykins’ term as police chief.

Amid public outrage, Boykins, the city’s first black police chief, rescinded his resignation a day after offering it, and was subsequently demoted to a new position with the city government. He later sued on the grounds of racial discrimination and won a $50,000 settlement.

Boykins says he never listened to the recorded calls, but a city employee named Karen DePaepe did—again per longstanding departmental policy—and she has described in sworn testimony hearing white South Bend police officers regularly use racist language in reference to Boykins, while coordinating amongst themselves on a plan to convince the mayor to remove him from his post.

Buttigieg fired DePaepe, who also sued the city, winning a $235,000 settlement. She has not commented on the recordings since.

Legalization as smart politics

So where does all this leave us? Which is the real Pete Buttigieg: Candidate Pete the ambitious reformer, or Mayor Pete the status-quo protector?

Either way, it’s worth noting that as one of the first crop of millennial candidates for President, Buttigieg has arrived on the national stage at a time when 66% of Americans (and 76% of Democrats) now support cannabis legalization. As does almost every one of his rivals for the nomination.

So backing an end to cannabis prohibition is no longer a politically bold or courageous stance.

It’s just smart politics.

Story correction

Jan. 22, 2020: An earlier version of this story said Pete Buttigieg had called his demotion of South Bend’s black police chief his “first serious mistake as mayor.” Buttigieg wrote in his memoir that the mistake was his initial support of the chief.

David Bienenstock's Bio Image

David Bienenstock

Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.

View David Bienenstock's articles