GOP Addresses Marijuana in Second Debate


On Sept. 16, 2015, 11 GOP presidential hopefuls gathered on a crowded stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California to make their cases that they should be the next Republican nominee for president. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the debate also served as an endurance test for candidates as they traded barbs and blows over each other’s record and platform.

After handling subjects like the economy and foreign policy, several candidates were asked questions about the legalization of marijuana, which triggered a lively discussion among the candidates.

The first candidate to address the question of legalization was Sen. Rand Paul, who has made a name for himself by championing hands-off governance.

“There is at least one prominent example on the stage of someone who says they smoked pot in high school,” Paul said, referencing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “And yet the people going to … to jail for this are poor people, often African-Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t.”

Bush chimed into the discussion by frankly declaring that Paul was clearly addressing him.

“So, 40 years ago, I smoked marijuana, and I admit it,” Bush said. “I’m sure that other people might have done it and may not want to say it in front of 25 million people. My mom’s not happy that I just did.”

Several minutes later, Bush’s official twitter account tweeted, “Sorry mom.”

Although Paul grilled Bush on opposing medical marijuana, claiming that children suffering from seizures could be separated from their parents, Bush missed the opportunity to rebuff Paul’s claim by pointing out that Florida already has legalized CBD oil for children suffering from seizures.

Bush tried to use that moment to pivot towards a conversation about drug addiction in general, but Paul continued to press his attack. “In the current circumstances, kids who had privilege like you do don’t go to jail, but the poor kids in our inner cities go to jail.”

While the use of the word privilege visibly made Bush’s lip curl, his rebuttal was short-lived as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie weighed in on the debate.

“Senator Paul thinks the only victim [of marijuana] is the person … look at the way people get used and move on to other drugs when they use marijuana as a gateway drug.” Although the gateway theory has been more or less debunked, no one challenged him on the statement.

When Christie jumped into the fray, there was a lively back and forth between him and Paul, with Paul asserting that if Christie was elected president, the feds would come in and arrest parents trying to help their children with medical marijuana. Christie rebuffed the remarks.

“In New Jersey, we have medical marijuana laws which I supported and implemented,” Christie said. “I’m not against medical marijuana. We do it in New Jersey. I’m against the recreational use.”

As has pointed out, what Christie didn’t mention is that five years after passing medical marijuana, New Jersey only has three out of six dispensaries operational within the state. Christie also rejected an attempt to allow New Jersey patients to visit other states and bring medical marijuana back with them.

While Christie is not trying to shut down the state’s medical marijuana program, it is not entirely accurate to assert that he is completely on board with the idea.

In a sobering moment, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina chimed in with her own experiences with the effects of drug addiction.

“I very much hope I am the only person on this stage who can say this, but I know there are millions of Americans out there who will say the same thing,” Fiorina said. “My husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction. So, we must invest more in the treatment of drugs.”

She went on to agree with Paul over allowing states to make their own choices with regard to marijuana reform, but then she quickly regurgitated a line many marijuana opponents often recite.

“But we are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It’s not.”

While it may be disappointing to some that no GOP candidate gave a glowing endorsement of marijuana in the second debate, it is still encouraging to hear that three out of the four Republicans who addressed the issue endorsed the idea of states’ rights when it comes to marijuana.

If this second debate demonstrated anything, it’s that the issue of marijuana legalization has gained enough legitimacy to earn a spotlight that the GOP debate couldn’t ignore.

William Sumner, a freelance writer and marijuana journalist, was a staff writer for MJINews from May 2014 through February 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @W_Sumner.

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