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GOP Debate on Cannabis Represents Progress

Photo by Chris Carlson/AP

Joint Opinions

GOP Debate on Cannabis Represents Progress

What happened last Wednesday was inconceivable as recently as eight years ago. Four Republican candidates for president chimed in on marijuana on Wednesday’s primetime debate, and three supported state legalization laws. All four spoke in favor of medical marijuana, with two governors parrying attacks that they weren’t in favor enough. Furthermore, these candidates represented at least three distinct sections of the party. Laws are still lagging behind, but it’s clear we are winning the sentiment battle. Wholesale rejection of cannabis liberalization is no longer a tenable position for a national politician with serious aspirations, and opponents of statewide legalization law seem increasingly out of touch.

Let’s take a closer look at the statements of the four candidates who weighed in. The conversation began with a question by CNN’s Jake Tapper designed to set up a debate between the most vocal proponent (Rand Paul) and opponent (Chris Christie) of marijuana legalization on the stage (for better or worse, CNN designed its debate to foster back and forth debate).

Rand Paul got the first crack:

“We have an example of someone on the stage of people who said, they smoked pot in high school, and yet the people who are going to jail for this are poor people, often African Americans, often Hispanics, yet the rich kids who use drugs aren’t.”

Paul then proposed one of the most amazing moments in political debate history: an open question for all candidates on who had smoked pot in high school.

Sadly, Jeb Bush jumped in before that could happen, admitting to his smoking marijuana in his youth. What he said next, however, was quite encouraging.

“What goes on in Colorado, as far as I’m concerned, that should be a state decision,” Bush started.

He’s not the first to say this, but the source of those words is at least as important as the words themselves. Bush is still his party’s center of gravity, biggest fundraiser, and, according to prediction markets, still the most likely candidate to capture the Republican nomination. That he can casually mention his support for states to do what they please on marijuana legalization is momentous. In fact, Bush felt no need to justify this position or couch it in the context of a larger vision. He simply mentioned it, then moved on to talking about the seriousness of the heroin epidemic. This statement may represent some early positioning against Hillary Clinton — she has taken up the issue of hard and prescription drug abuse after frequently hearing about it on the campaign trail. Both parties, it seems, have moved on to other drugs. Though no candidate has backed full legalization, all of them seem most comfortable in a gray area where states can do what they want.

Carly Fiorina, newly ascendant as of this debate, also jumped in on the drug talk, and, like Bush, gave a quick thumbs up to state legalization, then spent most of her time trying to find something dangerous to talk about.

“I agree with Senator Paul. I agree with states’ rights. But we are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It’s not. And the marijuana that kids are smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago.”

(On that last point, there is no question that today’s cannabis packs a punch unlike anything the ’60s and ’70s had to offer. One plus to legalization is that we can start to see more of a range from mellow to brain-rearranging. Also, even with today’s weed, the number of people who have fatally overdosed on it in the known history of the world remains at zero.)

So the party’s standard bearer, its most prominent libertarian, and rising outsider all support state legalization. This is incredibly significant on a practical level. It’s looking highly unlikely that the next president will want to try to shut down operations in the four states and one district that have legalized marijuana. Only New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has declared he would do so, and his odds at the nomination are vanishingly thin. Another way in which Christie was unique at Wednesday’s debate, he was the only candidate to utter the word, “gateway”.

But even Christie didn’t just repeat Reagan-era nonsense. At a time when candidates are eager to announce their xenophobia, or to pull economic “facts” out of thin air, the standard “War on Drugs” rhetoric still doesn’t fly. Here’s how Christie put it:

“I’ll just say this, first off, New Jersey is the first state in the nation that now says if you are non-violent, non-dealing drug user, that you don’t go to jail for your first offense. You go to mandatory treatment… I’m for rehabilitation. That’s why I think the War on Drugs has been a failure.”

This may be the best political environment for legalization since cannabis became illegal in the U.S. 2016 is primed to be a huge year for statewide initiatives. The more states legalize, the more pressure there will be on the sluggish federal government to remove federal sanctions against cannabis. If you have thought about getting involved in the legalization movement, now is the time to check in with activists in your state to find out how you can help. In states where nothing is stirring, a letter to the editor or even a bumper sticker can get the conversation started. While the recent trend has been positive, there is no reason to wait for a better moment. This joint circle is open to all, but it’s up to you to step up and join.

What do you think? Does the GOP talking up the topic of cannabis at the presidental debate represent progress? Tell us in the comments below. 

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