Marijuana had a major moment at the Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night, taking center stage for the first time this election season. But rather than launch a new war on drugs, several candidates endorsed the right of states to make their own decision on marijuana, clearing the way for an explosion of new pro-pot ballot initiatives in 2016.
Speaking at the presidential library of drug warrior Ronald Reagan, the GOP vanguard might have been expected to double down on opposition to the drug, promising to stamp out marijuana in America. But the biggest cheers came for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina --the three candidates who pledged to let local governments do what they want about pot.
They didn’t have a single soft word for marijuana itself, but they gave their ideological blessing to the four states where voters have already said “yes, please” to recreational markets. CNN moderator Jake Tapper set up the question with a reference to the sinking candidacy of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor who believes federal drug law should be enforced on the state level.
“If you're getting high in Colorado today,” Christie recently said, “enjoy it until January 2017, because I will enforce the federal laws against marijuana.” Would Rand Paul do the same?
“I don't think that the federal government should override the states,” Paul answered. “I believe in the 10th Amendment and I really will say that the states are left to themselves.”
The audience erupted in applause. And he wasn’t done.
“I would let Colorado do what the Tenth Amendment says,” he continued, referring to the first state to legalize marijuana. “Colorado has made their decision. And I don't want the federal government interfering and putting moms in jail, who are trying to get medicine for their kid.”
Paul also landed a racial and social critique of the status quo, which includes arresting hundreds of thousands of people for marijuana possession, most of them nonwhite, poor, and in for a world of collateral damage as a result of a bust. That forced Jeb Bush into the conversation, where he ratified the same idea of state rights.
“What goes on in Colorado, as far as I'm concerned, that should be a state decision,” he said.
“I agree with Senator Paul. I agree with states' rights,” added Fiorina.
Related: 5 takeaways from the GOP debate
But unfortunately the candidates also displayed an old fashioned and largely misguided understanding of marijuana's dangers and its rank among more dangerous drugs. Paul took the softest approach, saying that marijuana's "only victim" is the individual. But he still called pot use "a crime."
Fiorina, Christie and Bush, meanwhile, made no distinction between marijuana and heroin. And to varying degrees they promoted the debunked idea that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder drugs just because it often comes first in a sequence.
Fiorina gave strongest voice to the anti-drug position, unveiling a painful personal story that could have been clipped from a Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” campaign from the 1980s.
“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,” she said. “My husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction. So, we must invest more in the treatment of drugs.”
The room went quiet. The other candidates stopped trying to look friendly, and instead just looked sad. And then Fiorina continued.
“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,” she said.
“We do need criminal justice reform. We have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for non-violent offenses, mostly drug related. It's clearly not working," she continued. "But we need to tell young people the truth. Drug addiction is an epidemic, and it is taking too many of our young people.”
The room erupted in applause.
What Fiorina said is certainly true. Drug addiction is a killer. But the culprit is not marijuana, according to the best available research. What America is experiencing is a great heroin relapse, with the death rate for overdoses quintupling since 2002, cutting through class and color lines. Heroin today is now as popular and deadly as crack cocaine was in the 1980s. Marijuana, meanwhile, remains incapable of delivering a fatal overdose.
Chris Christie and Jeb Bush also lumped marijuana and the harder drugs and no one tried to correct them.
“Here's the deal,” said Bush. “We have a serious epidemic of drugs that goes way beyond marijuana.” He referenced New Hampshire, one of the states hardest hit by heroin overdoses. “People's families are being torn apart.”
Chris Christie went even further, deploying some of the oldest and least defensible arguments of the old war on drugs even as he claimed the drug war has been a failure.
“That doesn't mean we should be legalizing gate way drugs,” he said. “And if Senator Paul thinks that the only victim is the person, look at the decrease in productivity, look at the way people get used and move on to other drugs when they use marijuana as a gateway drug, it is not them that are the only victims. Their families are the victims too, their children are the victims too, and their employers are the victims also.”
That’s a scary speech for supporters of marijuana reform, but for now it’s also a moot position. As long as Republican support for “states rights” is stronger than their distaste for marijuana use, reformers have nothing to fear.