When talk turned to weed at the tail end of last night's three-hour Republican primary debate, the candidates delivered some of the most spirited exchanges of the evening.
Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning senator from Kentucky who has long championed cannabis legalization, wasted no time in calling out what he described as the hypocrisy of enforcing laws against marijuana. In doing so, he also put the heat on Jeb Bush, calling out the former Florida governor on his pot-smoking days in high school.
"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 jail for this are poor people, often African-Americans and often Hispanics, and yet the rich kids who use drugs aren't," he remarked. "I personally think that this is a crime for which the only victim is the individual."
Bush answered by acknowledging that he'd smoked pot some 40 years ago — "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," he said — and in doing so, he indicated that as president he would allow Colorado to proceed with its legalization of recreational marijuana.
"What goes on in Colorado, as far as I'm concerned, that should be a state decision," Bush said before pivoting to address what he called a serious epidemic of drugs, referring specifically to the recent spike in heroin addiction and overdoses.
Paul used the issue to hammer at a core Republican principle — states rights. Medical marijuana laws are on the books in 23 states and Washington, DC, while four states and DC have legalized recreational pot. Paul argued that the Tenth Amendment, which says that powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved to the states, means that state governments should be free to make their own laws on pot without interference from Congress.
"I would let Colorado do what the Tenth Amendment says," Paul said. "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."
Paul's position on drugs aligns with the Obama administration's stated efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system to reduce jail time for nonviolent drug offenders and the roughly $80 billion that taxpayers spend on corrections each year. The Kentucky senator is also a co-sponsor of the REDEEM Act, which would truncate jail terms for non-violent prisoners, help wipe out the lingering effects of criminal records for juvenile offenders when they reach adulthood, and block children from being sent to solitary confinement.
The subject of weed came up after CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked Paul about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's declaration that as president he would enforce federal laws against marijuana in states that have legalized it. Christie reaffirmed this position during the debate, calling marijuana "a gateway drug."
"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," Paul said. "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."
Christie tried deflecting this suggestion — "I'm not against medical marijuana. We do it in New Jersey," he said — but Paul countered that the enforcement of federal cannabis laws means the threat of jail time for all users, since no federal provision for medical marijuana exists. In March, Paul co-sponsored the bi-partisan Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act (CARERS Act), which would allow states that have medical marijuana laws on the books to operate without being in conflict with federal law, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not yet put the bill to a vote.
The controversial cash crop is set to be one of the hot button topics in the lead up to next year's presidential election. There are ballot initiatives for marijuana reform proposed in 16 states. According to advocates, support for the decriminalization of marijuana among voters, especially young or first-time voters, is estimated at up to 60 percent.
The GOP's position on legalization has generally upheld a longstanding US prohibition of drugs, which is presented as an effort to fight crime and curtail the social costs of drug use.
"Much of the war on drugs comes from a conservative orthodox view on this, which says the way to reduce crime and drug use is to find and punish users," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project. "What we can learn from successful programs to reduce alcohol and smoking is that we've actually reduced the use of these drugs not by arresting drinkers and smokers, but by treating it as a public health issue — regulating how it's sold, advertised and taxed."
"Colorado is experimenting with that approach and making tax revenue from the sale of marijuana, which is going back into school programs and the community," he added. "It's not going to murderous drug cartels."
Riffle added that he was disappointed that "scientifically incorrect" information mentioned during the debate was not challenged, particularly Christie's assertion that marijuana is a gateway drug.
"It's troubling to have presidential candidates to be so misinformed on marijuana," said Riffle. "The Institute of Medicine, the nation's foremost authority on science, medicine, and health, has said there's absolutely nothing about the physiological properties of marijuana that leads people to use other drugs."
Riffle noted that he agrees with former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina's comment during the debate that young people are being misled "when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer," but not for the reasons she implied.
"It's not like having a beer," he said. "It's safer. And there's an abundance of medical and scientific research that has shown this."
Fiorina, who dominated much of the debate, spoke about her own tragic family history with drugs, briefly referring her stepdaughter Lori, who died at age 35 after struggling with alcohol and prescription drugs. Though she affirmed the criminalization of drug use, she emphasized the need for justice reform and a focus on treatment.
"We must invest more in the treatment of drugs," 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."
Advocates and industry professionals point out that legalizing cannabis is not only a criminal justice issue, it's also a financial one. The legal marijuana industry is a rapidly growing source of revenue, with the market ballooning from $1.5 billion in 2013 to $2.7 billion in 2014.
"The marijuana industry helps create jobs, taxes, is made in the USA, and is the fastest-growing industry in the USA," said David Dinenberg, CEO of Kind Financial, a marijuana industry financial services company. "Marijuana reform is a very important topic to the voters, and will play a large part in determining our next president."
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields