First GOP Debate: A Great Opportunity to Discuss Marijuana Policy


Later today, Republican presidential candidates will participate in a two-hour debate on live television, where there’s a good chance they will be asked to address issues of marijuana policy. The primetime debate, organized by Fox News in Ohio, will begin at 8:50 pm Eastern time and will feature the top ten highest-polling candidates, led by business magnate Donald Trump. Many of us watching are hoping the candidates are asked about their views on marijuana legalization, as this would give them an opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion on this important issue.

Federal vs. State Laws

Marijuana could be a subject of debate in several ways. One of the questions that is likely to come up pertains to the relationship between federal and state laws; more specifically, do the candidates support the rights of U.S. states to legalize marijuana and enforce their own laws? Or, rather, should the federal government intervene to impose its blanket prohibition in states that have chosen to opt-out?

As he has made clear over the past few weeks, Chris Christie’s ambitions are to “crack down” on legal marijuana and restore the federal prohibition in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Meanwhile, other candidates — such as Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, and Ted Cruz — argue that these states have the right to enact and enforce their own marijuana laws free of federal interference. Should the question be posed at the debate, it should be interesting to witness a dialogue between the candidates on this issue.

Falling within the federal-state conflict, the more specific question of marijuana banking may also be on tonight’s agenda. While recreational marijuana is legal in four states, federal laws make it impossible for marijuana businesses to use the services of banks or credit unions. This leaves the industry with no other choice but to make transactions in cash, which is not only inefficient but also dangerous. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has thus far been the only Republican candidate to address the issue, co-sponsoring a bill earlier this year that would allow legal marijuana businesses to use banking services.

Marijuana Legalization

Candidates may also be asked to clarify their position on the legalization of marijuana. Most Republican contenders have made a point to publicly denounce the idea, including those that have fought against federal interference in states with legal marijuana.

Among the candidates appearing at the prime-time debate, only Donald Trump has a history of openly supporting legalization. In 1990, Trump advocated for the legalization of all drugs, declaring it the “only answer” to winning the War on Drugs. As it turns out, Trump has since backed away from this position, saying that he only supports medical marijuana and that legalization has caused “problems” in Colorado.

In the event that the debate invites a conversation on marijuana legalization, it’s possible that some candidates paint an unfavorable picture of marijuana legalization. When Chris Christie visited Colorado in 2014, he criticized voters for legalizing marijuana in their state, claiming the policy “diminishes the quality of life.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has also expressed his opposition to legalization, suggesting it would increase teenage use and make roads more dangerous.

These claims couldn’t be further from the truth, however, as marijuana legalization has been a resounding success in states that have implemented the policy. Research into the effects of legalization have found that teenage marijuana use is decreasing in Colorado, contradicting the worrisome claims made by drug warriors for generations. According to recent studies, Colorado’s roads are now safer than ever before, and the marijuana industry has raised tens of millions of dollars to fund the state’s schools, which could likely improve Coloradans’ quality of life rather than “diminish” it.

If tonight’s debate opens a discussion about legalization, it is crucial for the candidates to get their facts straight on the impact that the policy has had on public safety and public health in states that have chosen to implement it — and should the GOP debaters engage in fear-mongering on the issue, perhaps they ought to be reminded of how positive that impact has been.

The War on Drugs

Another avenue through which the candidates may be asked to debate on drug policy is a broader discussion on the War on Drugs, which only ten percent of Americans believe has been a success.

Compared to his Republican rivals, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has a strong record of talking about the failure of the War on Drugs. Paul has supported several pieces of federal legislation to scale back the damage of the drug war — from medical marijuana to sentencing reform — and has called out his fellow candidates for the hypocrisy of their views on marijuana policy. After spending weeks parading his opposition to marijuana legalization, Chris Christie seems to have had a last-minute change of heart on the issue this week, when he declared the War on Drugs to be “a well-intentioned failure” and framed himself as supporting “compassionate policies.”

As the disastrous effects of the drug war are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, a broader discussion on drug policy might be a good opportunity for the GOP to catch up to public opinion on the issue. Hopefully, the candidates will approach these questions not with punitive zeal, but with concrete policy recommendations on how the United States can put an end to its ever-so-failing War on Drugs.

I will be watching tonight’s debate with great interest, so keep an eye out for Marijuana Politics as we’ll be reporting on the candidates’ statements and positions as promptly as possible.