SIMI VALLEY, Calif. (BP) — The second 2016 Republican presidential debate included more than eight minutes of discussion on marijuana policy, with candidates differing over recreational marijuana proposals but appearing to agree in their support of medical marijuana.
“[M]any people on social media wanted us to ask about marijuana legalization,” CNN moderator Jake Tapper told the candidates during the Sept. 16 event at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Semi Valley, Calif.
Following the debate, an ethicist, a legal scholar and a pharmacy professor, each from a Baptist institution, helped clarify aspects of the marijuana policies that were discussed.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul opened the discussion by criticizing the government for jailing poor marijuana users while allegedly not incarcerating upper-class users at a similar rate.
“I personally think that [marijuana use] is a crime for which the only victim is the individual,” Paul said. Calling for America “to take a different attitude,” Paul said he would like to see “more rehabilitation and less incarceration.”
Paul argued the 10th Amendment requires the federal government to defer to state marijuana laws — even in Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is legal. Later Paul, a physician, argued for legalization of medical marijuana as well, saying enforcement of current federal law could lead to imprisonment of a parent who administers cannabis oil to a child with epilepsy.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush admitted to smoking marijuana 40 years ago and agreed with Paul that Colorado should be permitted to legalize recreational marijuana use. But he cited “a serious epidemic of drugs that goes well beyond marijuana” and noted a need for government action. Florida drug courts, for example, “give people a second chance,” he said.
“People’s families are being torn apart,” Bush said. “It is appropriate for the government to play a consistent role” and “provide more treatment, more prevention.”
Bush said he “did not oppose” a medical marijuana bill adopted by the Florida legislature but voted against medical marijuana as a private citizen when it appeared on a state ballot. The ballot measure contained “a huge loophole. It was the first step to getting to a Colorado place,” he said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he supports legalization of medical marijuana. He defended a previous claim that federal marijuana law should be enforced against recreational users — including those in states that have legalized pot.
Enforcement should not entail jailing “a nonviolent, non-dealing drug user” for a first offence, Christie said. Disagreeing with Paul, he said marijuana users are not the only victims of their crime.
“Look at the decrease in productivity, look at the way people … move on to other drugs when they use marijuana as a gateway drug,” Christie said. “It’s 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. And that’s why I’ll enforce the federal law while you can still put an emphasis on rehabilitation.”
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said she has experienced the death of a child due to drug addiction.
“I agree with states’ rights,” Fiorina said. “But we are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It’s not.”
America needs “criminal justice reform,” Fiorina said, “… but we need to tell young people the truth. Drug addiction is an epidemic.”
No other candidate participated in the marijuana discussion.
Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, applauded the attention drawn to marijuana policy but disagreed with some candidates’ reluctance to enforce federal marijuana laws.
“There are instances where federal government is supposed to let the states determine their laws,” Duke told Baptist Press. “But we have plenty of other instances where federal law applies to all of the states regardless of what a particular state chooses to do.
“I think it’s certainly appropriate, considering the considerable damage marijuana and other illicit drugs are doing to people, for federal government to continue to play a role in national drug policy,” Duke said, adding that nonviolent crimes can still be “significant.”
David Smolin, a constitutional law professor at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law, told BP the Supreme Court has decided federal laws trump state policies related to marijuana.
“In the modern era of constitutional law, the Supreme Court has had an expansive view of federal legislative power under the commerce clause” in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, Smolin said in written comments. “The Supreme Court dealt with the issue Rand Paul raised in the 2005 case of Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005), and ruled in favor of congressional power.”
Some observers may “think that the Supreme Court was wrong in its outcome,” Smolin said.
He added, “Not all states choose to legalize medical or recreational uses, and so … the federal government plays a key role in recognizing legitimate medical uses” through the Food and Drug Administration and “needs to get this right.”
A Union University pharmacy professor told BP cannabis-based drugs are already legal in all 50 states with a prescription for HIV/AIDS patients and cancer patients suffering from chemotherapy-related nausea. Such drugs, sold under the label Marinol, can stimulate patients’ appetites and calm their nausea, said Kim Jones, associate professor of pharmacy practice at Union.
When Paul complained children with epilepsy cannot access cannabis oil, he likely was referencing the fact that Marinol is not approved for use by minors or patients suffering from conditions other than cancer or HIV/AIDS, Jones said.
She disagrees for now with expanded cannabis legalization.
“If there were sufficient evidence — quality evidence in the right patient populations that demonstrated efficacy of [medical marijuana] and safety of the agent, I think it would be hard to argue against dispensing something that can improve quality of life for a young child with epilepsy or a cancer patient that’s end of life,” Jones said.
However, “as it stands today, in my opinion, that evidence does not exist in sufficient quantity to make me feel comfortable that this is a drug that can actually do all those things,” Jones said.
Duke said “it’s for the individual voter to decide” how much weight to give candidates’ marijuana policies on Election Day. But he made a recommendation.
“Considering how many lives have been destroyed through the use of marijuana and its gateway function to other drugs, the issue of drug abuse and marijuana should be a factor in people making decisions about who they’re going to elect,” Duke said.
The 11 candidates discussed a range of other issues in the debate, including Planned Parenthood funding, foreign policy and immigration. An earlier debate featured four additional candidates.