Republican U.S. presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich stands at his podium after the stage lights dimmed following the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential debate held by CNBC in Boulder, Colo., Oct. 28, 2015.
Photo by Rick Wilking/Reuters

Why didn’t pot catch fire during the GOP debate?


It should have been a big night for marijuana politics: A gathering of ten Republican presidential candidates who oppose the drug in a state where it’s not only legal but lucrative, generating $150 million in state revenue.

To make the subject even more enticing, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders chose the same night to back the end of federal marijuana prohibition, becoming the first major party candidate to do so. 

10/28/15, 7:58 PM ET

Bernie Sanders calls for federal marijuana legalization

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders calls for marijuana to be legalized on a federal level.
But the subject simply never caught fire. And in fact, when CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla first raised the issue, deep into the second and final hour of the conversation, he was cut off by candidates trying to discuss other issues. 

“Governor Kasich, let’s talk about marijuana,” the journalist began. 

“I’d like to just mention something about my tax plan,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul interjected, launching into a pot-free digression.

Quintanilla tried again, but then Texas Sen. Ted Cruz jumped in. 

“Oh, no, no, no,” Quintanilla protested, but Cruz rolled straight through the traffic cones. “Rand is exactly right. His plan is a good plan, and I will note that my 10% plan also eliminates the payroll tax, eliminates the death tax.” 

“Ok,” Quintanilla said, turning once again to perhaps the only illegal drug that 100 million Americans have tried at least once, and that tens of millions of Americans care about with an almost religious zeal.

RELATED: GOPers open the door to legal marijuana in second debate

“Governor Kasich, let’s talk about marijuana. We’re broadcasting from Colorado which has seen $150 million in new revenue for the state since legalizing last year. Governor Hickenlooper is not a big fan of legalization, but he’s said the people who used to be smoking it are still smoking it, they’re just now paying taxes.”

“Given the budget pressures in Ohio, and other states, is this a revenue stream you’d like to have?” 

Finally, the moment had arrived. Kasich drew in a breath. He began to speak … and out came a fleeting, old-fashioned and largely misguided answer that branded pot with the skull-and-cross-bones of an earlier generation.

“Sending mixed signals to kids about drugs is a disaster,” he said. “Drugs is one of the greatest scourge in this country, and I spent five years of my administration working with my team to do a whole sort of things to try to rein in the problem of overdoses, and it goes on and on. We could do a whole show on that.” 

Fiorina, Christie and Bush made similar comments at the last GOP debate, splicing the politics of marijuana and heroin. To varying degrees, they even promoted the debunked idea that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder drugs just because it often comes first in a sequence. And Fiorina unveiled the painful personal story of her daughter’s drug overdose, even though that tragedy was fueled by prescription pills and alcohol, according to the candidate’s memoir. 

This time, instead of a doing a whole show on the issue, the GOP field essentially dropped the curtain on pot. Aside from a groan-inducing one-liner from Cruz, who offered the moderators “some of those famous Colorado brownies,” the issue was over. 

At least for now.

Debates and Marijuana

Why didn't pot catch fire during the GOP debate?