Serious Discussion Of Marijuana Reform In GOP Debate

[ Posted Thursday, September 17th, 2015 – 17:30 UTC ]

It may not have been the first time that marijuana legal reform came up in a televised presidential debate, but last night's discussion between Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush was certainly the most in-depth and serious handling of the subject I've ever seen. This is something of a milestone, especially since it happened in a Republican debate (all of the quotes below come from a transcript of the debate provided by the Washington Post, I should mention).

The issue likely wouldn't have even arisen, except for two big reasons. The first is the presence of Rand Paul, who has always been libertarian when it comes to drug policy. The second is that CNN asked for viewers to submit questions online, and marijuana enthusiasts are a pretty large presence in the online community (for example: Obama tried asking citizens for questions in various ways online during his first years in office, and marijuana almost always immediately rose to the top of the list). Since two Republicans have clear positions on the issue, the debate moderator set it up as a question to Paul about Christie's vowing to crack down on Colorado and other states with legalized recreational marijuana. Paul responded with a sweeping indictment of the stupidity of the War On Weed, while taking a veiled shot at Bush:

I think one of the great problems, and what American people don't like about politics, is hypocrisy. People have one standard for others and not for them -- for themselves.

There is at least one prominent example on the stage of someone who says they smoked pot in high school, 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.

I personally think that this is a crime for which the only victim is the individual, and I think that America has to take a different attitude. I would like to see more rehabilitation and less incarceration. I'm a fan of the drug courts which try to direct you back towards work and less time in jail.

But the bottom line is the states. We say we like the Tenth Amendment, until we start talking about this. And I think the federal government has gone too far, I think that the war on drugs has had a racial outcome, and really has been something that has really damaged our inner cities.

Not only do the drugs damage them, we damage them again by incarcerating them and then preventing them from getting employment over time.

So I don't think that the federal government should override the states. I believe in the Tenth Amendment and I really will say that the states are left to themselves.

The moderator tried to dig out the name of that "prominent example on the stage," to which Paul amusingly responded:

Well, I think if we left it open, we could see how many people smoked pot in high school.

Sadly, the moderator missed this golden opportunity to ask all previous pot-smokers to raise their hands. We'll also never know whether Paul would have actually named Bush, because Bush helpfully jumped in and admitted it was indeed him.

So, 40 years ago, I smoked marijuana, and I admit it. 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.

This got Bush a round of both laughter and applause. Knowing Barbara Bush, I can't imagine she'd be too happy either, which is why it was such a funny line. But then Bush tried to lay out his own position:

That's true. And here's the deal. Here's the deal. We have -- we have a serious epidemic of drugs that goes way beyond marijuana. What goes on in Colorado, as far as I'm concerned, that should be a state decision.

But if you look at the problem of drugs in this -- in this society today, it's a serious problem. Rand, you know this because you're campaigning in New Hampshire like all of us, and you see the epidemic of heroin, the overdoses of heroin that's taking place.

People's families are -- are being torn apart. It is appropriate for the government to play a consistent role to be able to provide more treatment, more prevention -- we're the state that has the most drug courts across every circuit in -- in -- in Florida, there are drug courts to give people a second chance. That's the best way to do this.

Bush takes a rather weak and everything-to-everybody stance, easily equating marijuana with heroin, and bragging about the drug courts in Florida. Rand Paul wasn't going to let him get away with this, though:

But let me respond. The thing is, is that in Florida, Governor Bush campaigned against medical marijuana. That means that a small child like Morgan Hintz that has [?] seizures is day, is failing on non-traditional medications, is not allowed to use cannabis oil.

And if they do that in Florida, they will take the child away, they will put the parents in jail. And that's what that means if you're against allowing people use medical marijuana, you'll actually put them in jail.

And actually, under 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. I don't think that's fair. And I think we need to acknowledge it, and it is hypocritical to still want to put poor people in jail.

Bush tries to brush off his own hypocrisy with "I don't want to put poor people in jail, Randy." He then tries to explain how he was for it before he was against it, or something:

Here's the deal. No, I did not oppose when the legislature passed the bill to deal with that very issue. That's the way to solve this problem.

Medical marijuana on the ballot was opened up, there was a huge loophole, it was the first step to getting to a [inaudible] place. And as a citizen of Florida, I voted no.

Paul is right. You're either for medical marijuana or you're for jailing people and taking their kids away from them for using medicine. There is no middle ground here. Chris Christie then jumped into the fray (since his position was referenced in the initial question), with a rather interesting spin on being "pro-life."

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.

You see, Jake, I'm pro-life. And I think you need to be pro-life for more than just the time in the womb. It gets tougher when they get out of the womb. And when they're the 16-year-old drug addict in the Florida county lockup, that life is just as precious as the life in the womb.

And so, that's why I'm for rehabilitation, why I think the war on drugs has been a failure.

But I'll end with this. That doesn't mean we should be legalizing gateway drugs. 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 why I'll enforce the federal law, while you can still put an emphasis on rehabilitation, which we've done in New Jersey.

This makes absolutely no sense at all. Never mind the old canard about "gateway drugs." Ignore the refreshing take on being pro-life, post-womb. When you parse Christie's actual position, it makes no sense. Paul attempts to point this out:

Understand what they're saying. if they're going to say we are going to enforce the federal law against what the state law is, they aren't really believing in the Tenth Amendment.

Governor Christie would go into Colorado, and if you're breaking any federal law on marijuana, even though the state law allows it, he would put you in jail. If a young mother is trying to give her child cannabis oil for medical marijuana for seizure treatment, he would put her in jail, if it violates federal law.

I would let Colorado do what the Tenth Amendment says. This power -- we were never intended to have crime dealing at the federal level. Crime was supposed to be left to the states. 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.

Christie again tries to square the circle:

And Senator Paul knows that that's simply not the truth.

In New Jersey, we have medical marijuana laws, which I supported and implemented. This is not medical marijuana. There's goes as much -- a further step beyond. This is recreational use of marijuana.

This is much different. And so, while he would like to use a sympathetic story to back up his point, it doesn't work. I'm not against medical marijuana. We do it in New Jersey. But I'm against the recreational use against marijuana.

If he wants to change the federal law, get Congress to pass the law to change it, and get a president to sign it.

Paul once again tries to point out the inherent contradiction in Christie's stance:

Here is the thing, he doesn't want to make it about medical marijuana, but what if New Jersey's medical marijuana contradicts the federal law? He's saying he'll send the federal government in, and he will enforce the federal law. That's not consistent with the Tenth Amendment. It is not consistent with states' rights. And it is not consistent with the conservative vision for the country.

I don't think we should be sending the federal police in to arrest a mother and separate them from their child for giving a medicine to their child for seizures.

At this point, Carly Fiorina jumps in and completely shuts the entire argument down, because she and her husband "buried a child to drug addiction." She didn't give any details, and the moderator quickly moved on to other subjects.

Republicans apparently have decided -- after fighting the very concepts for decades -- that drug courts are a good thing (rather than sending people to jail for a few joints), that medical marijuana is actually acceptable, and that sending mothers to jail for giving their children crucial medication (or removing the child from such mothers) isn't really smart. That alone is a gigantic, tectonic shift in the political dialog. Some Democrats (and Libertarians, to be fair) have been fighting these battles for years, and they've obviously gained ground if GOP presidential candidates now support such things.

But Rand Paul is right -- you really can't have it both ways. There is no federal exception for medical marijuana. States with medical marijuana laws are in complete opposition to and defiance of federal law. These states have legalized something which the federal government deems "has no medicinal value" whatsoever. When Chris Christie says he'll "enforce federal law," this would also have to include cracking down on all states with medical marijuana laws. Jeb Bush, voting against a state medical marijuana law, was also voting for the risk of jail to hang over the head of any mother medicating their child. When Christie tried to lecture Paul on legislative procedure, he was flat-out wrong.

I'm not against medical marijuana. We do it in New Jersey. But I'm against the recreational use against marijuana. If he wants to change the federal law, get Congress to pass the law to change it, and get a president to sign it.

Christie is ignoring the fact that Congress has not passed and the president has not signed any law legalizing medical marijuana. It is still absolutely, 100 percent illegal under federal law. New Jersey is breaking the law by allowing medical marijuana. If a mother took her seizure-prone child to a federally-owned site in New Jersey (a historical park, for instance), should could indeed be arrested and jailed for what she's got in her purse.

I was a little disappointed that Paul didn't make this clearer, but I'm both grateful and astonished that the subject got as much serious discussion as it did.

Federal law does need to change. As soon as possible. Marijuana must be removed from the "Schedule I" list (dangerous drugs with no medical value). Christie is wrong about this process, though, because the Attorney General can do so with the stroke of a pen. Congress does not even need to act. Just by signing one document, the Attorney General could shift the federal government's marijuana policy to one that recognizes both science and reality -- marijuana can be used as medicine. Over half of the states have legalized medical marijuana in one form or another.

Another question I would have liked Chris Christie to answer is how much launching his new phase of the War On Weed is going to cost. There are now four states (plus Washington D.C.) with legalized recreational marijuana use. But by the time the next president is sworn in, that number could be much larger (there will be a concerted push on recreational legalization ballot initiatives in something like 10 states in 2016). What is going to happen if, say, 12 states have legalized recreational marijuana? California may be one of them, and it's the most populous state in the country. That's going to take a whole lot of new Drug Enforcement Agency cops, and a whole lot of legal resources that just don't exist at the present time. To say nothing of the jails we'll have to build to hold everyone. So how much is this futile and pointless campaign going to cost, Governor Christie?

I'd like to see these questions brought up in both the upcoming Democratic debates and in future Republican debates. We as a nation are long past the time when the issue could be treated as a joke and laughed off by politicians (while saying nothing substantive). The people are leading -- and demanding an end to the pointless and expensive War On Weed. Christie's right -- eventually Congress is going to have to recognize the new reality and throw in the federal towel in some fashion or another. Eventually, America (and the world) will treat marijuana as the legal equivalent of alcohol. We're not there yet, but the very fact that this discussion happened in a Republican debate certainly moves us all one step closer to achieving this goal.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


11 Comments on “Serious Discussion Of Marijuana Reform In GOP Debate”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I'm wondering if the 2016 presidential election campaign should, in any way, hinge on a serious discussion of marijuana reform.

    Don't get me wrong, though ... I'm glad to hear that there was a serious discussion about something. How low can the bar go?

  2. [2] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Rand Paul can't quite get himself disentangled from the Puritan-American notion that anybody involved in a pleasurable activity is engaged in a victimless crime. From what I know of his own biography I think that particular nuance is pure political calculation on his part.

    "I would like to see more rehabilitation and less incarceration. I'm a fan of the drug courts which try to direct you back towards work and less time in jail." See what I mean? Paul's position is: Stop having fun and get to work, and no that is not merely a suggestion.

    Enforcement of the no-fun doctrine has always been spotty. The Bush family is known to enjoy yachting. Yachting is fun, and is by the Puritan-American doctrine, a victimless crime. Back to work matey! So, why is there no call for yacht court?

    Christie's approach is to define recreational use of the wrong drug as a medical problem, and then mandate treatment. Paul attacks him from a 10th amendment perspective, but I would use Christie's own ample girth to point out the hypocrisy/wishful thinking of his position. Morbid obesity is a serious health problem in the USA. We have fat camps for kids (in my experience camp is mandatory), but why no fat court and mandatory fat clinics for adults? Well, one good reason is that medicine doesn't doesn't really know how to cure obesity very well, some would argue not at all. If Christie didn't know that before his lap band surgery, I think he strongly suspects it now. Christie still has a dangerously huge butt, because not every medical problem has a known medical solution, and drug use is basically another one of those problems. There is no good cure for alcohol, and no good cure for pot.

    To Paul and Christie: stop fooling yourself, stop fooling the public, stop pandering to the Republican Base.

  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    Liz: USA prisons and courts are clogged with drug cases. The money involved in illegal drug trade corrupts our courts, police and politicians. It is a big deal.

    I'm always amazed at how little comment is attached to posts on marijuana. Reform is a big deal. Just like Prohibition was a big deal, for all the same reasons: counter productive, expensive and corrupting.

  4. [4] 
    altohone wrote:

    Hey CW

    Thanks for pointing out this exchange.

    I have to agree with TS.
    We don't mandate treatment for alcohol use, so drug courts and mandatory treatment for pot are a bullshit "tough-on-crime-lite" position that defends punishment for pleasure seekers. It seems that I've heard something somewhere about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
    And the position likewise ignores that repeat "offenders" go right back into the disastrous War on Drugs system.

    Similarly, the "damage to themselves" and "damage to employers" claim is bullshit. The evidence is clear that alcohol is more damaging to both the body and productivity.

    Unfortunately, the "gateway drug" myth is still widely believed, so Paul should have called out Krispy to help put an end to that nonsense.

  5. [5] 
    altohone wrote:

    Hi Liz

    Just wanted to apologize about our exchange on a previous thread.

    After going back and rereading the comments, it really did appear like I was beating around the bush.

    That wasn't my intention.

    I had the same discussion in another forum a while back, and after a looong back and forth, the other person claimed that until the government makes a statement or documents are released, there was no proof and thus no possibility of substantiation.

    In other words, facts exposed through journalism were meaningless.

    So, when you raised issues with my first journalism source, I thought it was fair to ask for clarification about that central issue and which journalism sources were acceptable before going into it.

    I'm sorry I did such a poor job of clarifying what I was trying to get at... and for pissing you off.


  6. [6] 
    TheStig wrote:


    A comment of mine has gone missing in the Snap Judgment Thread. I only mention it because I went on record stating I believe Trump likely hit his high water mark at the 2nd debate. I'm noticing the press is drifting in that direction....also the term "jump the shark" (which I used) is getting bandied about by respectable journalists. So, if you could see fit to apply the plunger and give me a prognostication time stamp, I would be much obliged. :-)

    I should mention that I didn't say Trump had jumped the shark, only that would down the road. We'll know it when we see it, and will be huuuuggg-uh! Gotta get a bigger boat huge.

  7. [7] 
    John From Censornati wrote:


    "Rand Paul can't quite get himself disentangled from the Puritan-American notion that anybody involved in a pleasurable activity is engaged in a victimless crime."

    That's because he's a christian fundy. You don't hear any libertarian talk out of him in regard to gay marriage or abortion.

    ""I'm a fan of the drug courts which try to direct you back towards work and less time in jail." See what I mean? Paul's position is: Stop having fun and get to work"

    I think it's actually worse than that. I think he believes that, if you're "doing drugs", you're also robbing and stealing to "pay for your habit".

  8. [8] 
    John From Censornati wrote:


    "I'm wondering if the 2016 presidential election campaign should, in any way, hinge on a serious discussion of marijuana reform."

    It absolutely should. It absolutely won't.

    wRong Paul has said that he would pardon all non-violent War On Some Drugs prisoners. If his princeling would promise the same, he'd get my vote although I agree with him about next to nothing. Prohibition, militarized police, and the prison industrial complex have to end. It all amounts to the intention creation of a permanent criminal class to feed a corporate monster.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    TS and JFC,

    I get that it's an important issue and I hope the next administration works to make all of the necessary changes in that regard.

    I am merely lamenting the decidedly non-serious nature of the debate on international issues. As just one of many outsiders looking in and as a big fan of the promise of America, my focus is always on US foreign policy.

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    As for you, my virtual friend Al,

    I pardon you.


  11. [11] 
    altohone wrote:

    Hi Liz

    Thank you.

    Your impatience with me was completely justified.
    I will try to pay closer attention in the future.


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