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The Most Surprising Moment from Wednesday's Republican Presidential Debate

Drug decriminalization and criminal justice reform were practically forgone conclusions at the latest 2016 presidential debate.

Matt Taylor

Matt Taylor

Screencrap via CNN

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Since the advent of the television modern American presidential debates have become steadily more theatrical, now focused mostly on political pageantry and whether candidates can pull off a selfie or a fist-bump without looking confused or senile. Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate offered plenty of bizarre moments for the canon: Jeb Bush suggested that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill; Donald Trump claimed to have witnessed a baby get autism from a vaccine; Rand Paul said his Secret Service code name would be "Justice Never Sleeps."

But the biggest surprise of the night was when key Republican candidates were engaging in a vaguely sensible discussion of criminal justice policy. That's right: After decades of the War on Drugs and spiraling mass incarceration, something—whether it's the Black Lives Matter protest movement or cost-cutting impulses or pure political calculation—has mainstream conservatives expressing at least tepid support for medical marijuana and drug reform. And not just in front of swing voters in Ohio or Florida, but during the height of primary season.

"Forty years ago I smoked marijuana, and I admit it," Bush said at the debate. "I'm sure that other people might've done it and may not want to say it in front of 25 million people. My mom's not happy that I just did."

Supporting marijuana decriminalization, decrying racism in the justice system, and backing a re-think of the prison-industrial complex aren't exactly novel stances for Paul. But Bush is a prototypical country-club Republican, just as comfortable hob-nodding with billionaires as with Florida soccer moms. That he speaks so openly about his past—little bro George W. ducked and weaved regarding his own drug use back in 1999—reflects the rapidly-shifting national dialogue about drugs and the law.

"The exchange shows just how popular marijuana law reform—particularly medical cannabis—is with Americans," said Tom Angell, chairman of the legalization advocacy group Marijuana Majority. "Even those candidates who personally oppose legalization are at least saying the federal government shouldn't arrest patients who are following state laws. And that means changing federal law. It's hard to imagine a discussion like this happening two or three election cycles ago."

Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor and staunch legalization opponent, insisted he was on board with medical pot in the Garden State and argued he's been a leader when it comes to keeping first-time drug users out of prison. Legalization advocates might take issue with that, but it's clear that the party traditionally associated with "more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors"—as President George H.W. Bush said in a 1989 televised address—is changing its tune.

"You saw a tip of the iceberg moment tonight," said Rick Wilson, a veteran Florida-based Republican consultant. "Remember, a few years ago, this would have been, I would never smoke marijuana, it's a disgusting devil's weed. You would have had all the moral preening.

"I would guess the only guy on that stage who never smoked weed is Mike Huckabee," Wilson continued. "When you see people who are unarguable, rock-hard conservatives saying, 'I'm done with this fight,' that means we're really done with this fight. Now it's not a matter of if but when."

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