In retrospect, when Rick Perry began wearing those hipster glasses with the plastic frames last year, it may have been a sign that the governor’s highbrow makeover had begun. That, at least, was one way to interpret his attendance at this year’s World Economic Forum conference in Davos, a tiny resort town in Switzerland. The annual meeting is an exclusive, invitation-only confab of the world’s political and economic elite. The official purpose is for attendees to talk about global trends and how they, as the world’s power brokers, might best respond to the same. But Davos is also schmooze city for the presidents and CEOs who usually attend. Perry was the only United States governor in attendance, though not the only American politician; an album of photos on his public Facebook page showed him hobnobbing with a number of congressional representatives, including Kay Granger and Jeb Hensarling, both Republicans from Texas. Still, Perry seemed tickled by the chance to talk up the state, and his tenure at its helm, in front of an influential international audience.

And in light of Perry’s public remarks, during a panel discussion of the global “drugs dilemma”, I’d say he acquitted himself pretty well. A number of news outlets reported, with some surprise, that the governor of Texas had come out in favor of marijuana decriminalization. The reason people were surprised was that Perry has always opposed legalization of marijuana (or any other drug). They shouldn’t have been that surprised, though, because the governor also has a long record of supporting alternative approaches to the “war on drugs”, and that’s basically what he called for at Davos. From Jonathan Tilove’s summary, at the Austin American-Statesman:

“Did we fight the war on drugs correctly every day? No,” said Perry. “Has the war on terrorism been fought correctly every day? No.”

“But,” he continued, “the point is that after 40 years of the war on drugs, I can’t change what happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade.”

That’s entirely correct. Perry has, as governor, signed a number of bills that soften penalties for drug possession and use (probation instead of prison, etc); Texas’s recent reforms on drug policy are summarized at the Right on Crime initiative, which began here, at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and has since spread to a number of other states. Perry’s stated support for such change has been primarily pragmatic, in keeping with the Right on Crime initiative’s only-Nixon-can-go-to-China ethos. Jailing people for nonviolent drug crimes is expensive, if nothing else, and historically Texas has had woefully high incarceration rates, which have required a disproportionate share of the state’s general spending. Texas still has the biggest prison population in the country, but during Perry’s time as governor, and partly as a result of these reforms, the state’s incarceration rate has dropped from second-highest to fourth—progress, of a kind, even if it’s still not a statistic we can brag about. And beyond that, Perry has at several points said that as a matter of federalism, he thinks states should have the latitude to make their own decisions about things like medical marijuana and, for that matter, gay marriage. That was one of the occasional bits of classically liberal thinking that earned him some raised eyebrows during his ill-fated quest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.  At the same time, Perry has maintained that he’s against legalizing marijuana, and nothing he said in Davos changes that.

My colleague Dan Solomon, looking at the evidence over the weekend, argued that Perry has been “talking out of both sides of his mouth” about drug policy. From my perspective, though, the news about Perry from Davos wasn’t really that new. Nor have his previous moves on drug policy been out of character. Perry has always been more pragmatic than ideological, and not especially prone to moral panic.  

What did jump out at me about Perry’s Davos comments was that reading between the lines, his ideas about policy were explicitly referred to concerns about process as well as outcomes. Though he indicated support for decriminalization, and that he has taken actions to move the state in that direction, he nonetheless warned against a headlong rush to that goal. He noted that it’s an increasingly popular position, in the United States and around the world, but said that that’s not a reason, in itself, to support decriminalization, and he explicitly rejected a suggestion from another panelist that he could, working alongside the state’s attorney-general, simply decline to enforce Texas’s existing drug laws. That’s a cogent argument. It’s possible, too, that Perry might someday move from supporting decriminalization of marijuana to supporting its legalization, which he has historically opposed because he think that use of the drug has adverse health and social effects. But that change would only come if he (a) came to think that the adverse effects of marijuana use had been exaggerated, and (b) if that change came through the legislature, rather than by executive decree.