Christie’s Pot Comments Draw Heckling at Republican Debate

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“We want Rand! We want Rand!”

Somewhere near the two-and-a-half hour mark of last week’s Republican presidential debate in South Carolina, protesters supporting Kentucky Senator Rand Paul suddenly interrupted the end of a Chris Christie’s answer in which the New Jersey governor said, “This president doesn’t enforce the marijuana laws in this country because he doesn’t agree with them.”

Over on “political Twitter,” commenters failed to notice the significance of the timing. (Indeed, befuddled Fox Business moderator Neil Cavuto also struggled to understand what was being shouted.) Having been left off the main debate stage for the first time this primary season owing to lack of polling strength among Republican voters, an outraged Paul had chosen not to show up to the “kids table” debate with the Fiorinas and Santorums of the world and instead responded on Twitter throughout the evening. He also appeared on The Daily Show.

Since each contending Democrat supports cannabis reform, the protest on behalf of candidate Paul hangs a lantern on a moment exposing the likeliest way anti-marijuana arguments will further emerge from Republican candidates during this 2016 election year: not necessarily as broadsides against the use of marijuana itself – as most politicians can hear the steady polling drumbeat as well as anyone – but as part of a personal argument against President Obama and his allegedly lawless, whimsical, tyrannical reign.

Ironically, the first time the selective enforcement of federal prohibition laws in legal medical marijuana states was raised with the White House, it was raised from the left regarding immigration. Following an Obama online question-and-answer session hosted by Latino media on Sept. 28, 2011, Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked:

“This afternoon in the online Q&A, the President said, as he has before, when he was asked about deporting people who would otherwise be covered by the DREAM Act, he said he can’t choose which laws on the books to enforce. But a couple of years ago with marijuana he did exactly that. This administration said in states that have medical marijuana laws, federal laws prohibiting marijuana use should not be enforced. So why does the President say he doesn’t have that authority?”

Carney dodged the question, saying he first didn’t understand it and then referring the questioner to the Department of Justice regarding “questions of prosecutorial discretion.”

Conservatives picked up on the critique. Three weeks later, in a BET town hall, Obama took a Mississippi conservative’s question about why the Justice Department had not prosecuted federal marijuana laws whereas it had chosen to file a lawsuit against Arizona over its Senate Bill 1070, otherwise known as the notorious “papers please” law that prompted widespread boycotts and outrage.

Obama did not acknowledge any inconsistency in his positions, instead defending his federal drug enforcement policy, saying the DOJ prioritized drug kingpins over small possession enforcement. Two weeks after that, Carney fielded the same question from the press corps.

“The President argued… you can’t have a patchwork of immigration laws going state to state to state. But what about the logic of whether that applies when it comes to marijuana law, which you have a patchwork of laws, state to state to state?”

Although Carney this time understood the point, and again demurred, the honest answer is that the inconsistency is deliberate, and it’s part of Obama’s political philosophy to want to expand civil rights rather than restrict them. That’s the logical reason why the DOJ’s resources under Obama, with some notable exceptions, go toward fighting restrictions like a law that would require papers-on-demand to prove citizenship rather than toward removing rights from medical marijuana patients in legal states.

If it looks like an inconsistency in applying laws, conservatives hope it can feed a narrative against Obama that he believes himself above the law. Rather than argue against a consciously liberal civil rights philosophy that logically supports what they label inconsistency – given that it’s shared and embraced by enough Americans to lead to two comfortable election wins for Obama – conservatives molded their anti-cannabis argument into a personal one against the President himself: the capriciousness of a lawless scoundrel.

Indeed, a year after Obama was sworn in for his second term, the selective enforcement argument blossomed. The conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, claiming a supposed “growing body of medical research” showing pot permanently damages cognition when adolescents use it, urged Obama to enforce federal laws. “Whatever Mr. Obama’s personal views on marijuana,” concluded the Journal’s conservative editorial board, “his picking and choosing from the U.S. code is far more corrosive to the rule of law and trust in government.”

Seven weeks later, Obama saw the Republican House pass legislation that would force him to crack down on states that had legalized marijuana in any form. The bill went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate of the 113th Congress.

The following summer, two days before the Supreme Court expanded American civil rights when it handed down its landmark Obergefell ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, the personal lawlessness argument bubbled up again when a conservative reporter challenged Press Secretary Josh Earnest–who “vigorously disagree[d]”–over Obama’s failure to enforce federal cannabis laws.

“We have now seen this administration announce publicly that it is going to decline to enforce relevant federal statutes with respect to marijuana… do you understand how a dispassionate observer could conclude that this President who is the chief enforcer of our laws, the chief executive of our laws charged with executing those laws, takes a somewhat cavalier view of the law and sometimes decides it should be enforced and sometimes not?”

All of this is to say that in the polarized political election year of 2016, expect to hear marijuana mentioned from Republican presidential contenders less in the context of legalization’s inherent supposed evils than as evidence of the personal failings of a president Republicans despise. But one way or another, this is Obama’s last year in office, and both major candidates on the Democratic side openly support liberalizing federal cannabis policy. If conservatives’ anti-marijuana focus remains on Obama-as-bad-executive rather than on the changes Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders regularly say they will make one calendar year from now, it’s a sign Republicans know prohibition on its merits is not a wedge issue that helps them rise in the polls.

That’s what Christie, personally a staunch prohibitionist, signaled at the Republican debate last week. Though Paul’s vocal supporters may have lost the battle for their particular candidate’s presence on stage, one of Paul’s signature issues is on pace to win the war.

What role do you think cannabis reform will play in the 2016 presidential election? Tell us in the comments below.

Sean Quinn is an Oakland-based writer who co-pioneered FiveThirtyEight, earning national acclaim for his coverage of the presidential campaigns’ 2008 field operations. He dreams of a country where cannabis is legal, all Americans are treated equally under the law, and the St. Louis Blues are Stanley Cup Champions.

5 Comments

  1. John

    January 23, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    So who are these politicians that are telling me a Believer in Christianity, that I have to except abortion, I have to except same sex marriage and will be stripped of all my worldly belongings because I won’t bow down and serve them? Crisco Christie and any other political control freak needs to back off on canabbis use, particularly medical uses. We are tired of Monsanto and Dow, and the political pussies they own. Period, we are done with their bullshit.

  2. William Clark

    January 22, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    Christie’s earlier vow to prosecute all cannabis consumers revealed his wild bias on the subject.

    No one should promote the canard that marijuana is dangerous, like pharmaceutical drugs. In truth it’s a medicinal herb, cultivated, bred, and evolved in service to human beings over thousands of years.

    “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting people to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, break up their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” –John Ehrlichman

    Prohibition of marijuana is a premise built on a tissue of lies: Concern For Public Safety. Our new laws save hundreds of lives every year, on our highways alone. In November of 2011, a study at the University of Colorado found that in the thirteen states that decriminalized marijuana between 1990 and 2009, traffic fatalities have dropped by nearly nine percent—now nearly ten percent in Michigan—more than the national average, while sales of beer went flat by five percent. No wonder Big Alcohol opposes it. Ambitious, unprincipled, profit-driven undertakers might be tempted too.

    In 2012 a study released by 4AutoinsuranceQuote revealed that marijuana users are safer drivers than non-marijuana users, as “the only significant effect that marijuana has on operating a motor vehicle is slower driving”, which “is arguably a positive thing”. Despite occasional accidents, eagerly reported by police-blotter ‘journalists’ as ‘marijuana-related’, a mix of substances was often involved. Alcohol, most likely, and/or prescription drugs, nicotine, caffeine, meth, cocaine, heroin, and a trace of the marijuana passed at a party ten days ago. However, on the whole, as revealed in big-time, insurance-industry stats, within the broad swath of mature, experienced consumers, slower and more cautious driving shows up in significant numbers. A recent Federal study has reached the same conclusion. And legalization should improve those numbers further.

    No one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana. It’s the most benign ‘substance’ in history. Most people—and particularly patients who medicate with marijuana–use it in place of prescription drugs or alcohol.

    Marijuana has many benefits, most of which are under-reported or never mentioned in American newspapers. Research at the University of Saskatchewan indicates that, unlike alcohol, cocaine, heroin, or Nancy (“Just say, ‘No!’”) Reagan’s beloved nicotine, marijuana is a neuroprotectant that actually encourages brain-cell growth. Research in Spain (the Guzman study) and other countries have discovered that it also has tumor-shrinking, anti-carcinogenic properties. These were confirmed by the 30-year Tashkin population study at UCLA.

    Drugs are man-made, cooked up in labs, for the sake of patents and the profits gained by them. Often useful, but typically burdened with cautionary notes and lists of side effects as long as one’s arm. ‘The works of Man are flawed.’

    Marijuana is a medicinal herb, the most benign and versatile in history. “Cannabis” in Latin, and “kanah bosm” in the old Hebrew scrolls, quite literally the Biblical Tree of Life, used by early Christians to treat everything from skin diseases to deep pain and despair. Why despair? Consider the current medical term for cannabis sativa: a “mood elevator”. . . as opposed to antidepressants, which ‘flatten out’ emotions, leaving patients numb to both depression and joy.

    The very name, “Christ” translates as “the anointed one”. Well then, anointed with what? It’s a fair question. And it wasn’t holy water, friends. Holy water came into wide use in the Middle Ages. In Biblical times, it was used by a few tribes of Greek pagans. But Christ was neither Greek nor pagan.

    Medicinal oil, for the Prince of Peace. A formula from the Biblical era has been rediscovered. It specifies a strong dose of oil from kanah bosom, ‘the fragrant cane’ of a dozen uses: ink, paper, rope, nutrition. . . . It was clothing on their backs and incense in their temples. And a ‘skinful’ of medicinal oil could certainly calm one’s nerves, imparting a sense of benevolence and connection with all living things. No wonder that the ‘anointed one’ could gain a spark, an insight, a sense of the divine, and the confidence to convey those feelings to friends and neighbors.

    I am appalled at the number of ‘Christian’ politicians, prosecutors, and police who pose on church steps or kneeling in prayer on their campaign trails, but cannot or will not face the scientific or the historical truths about cannabis, Medicinal Herb Number One, safe and effective for thousands of years, and celebrated as sacraments by most of the world’s major religions.

  3. Malcolm Kyle

    January 22, 2016 at 4:47 am

    Here are several extracts from an article posted at the ‘Tenth Amendment Center’ on 30th Dec 2015, it concerns Prohibition and Federal Law:

    “Of course, the federal government lacks any constitutional authority to ban or regulate marijuana within the borders of a state, despite the opinion of the politically connected lawyers on the Supreme Court. If you doubt this, ask yourself why it took a constitutional amendment to institute federal alcohol prohibition.”

    “FBI statistics show that law enforcement makes approximately 99 of 100 marijuana arrests under state, not federal law.”

    “Furthermore, figures indicate it would take 40 percent of the DEA’s yearly-budget just to investigate and raid all of the dispensaries in Los Angeles – a single city in a single state. That doesn’t include the cost of prosecution. The lesson? The feds lack the resources to enforce marijuana prohibition without state assistance.”

    “With nearly half the country legalizing marijuana, the feds find themselves in a position where they simply can’t enforce prohibition any more. The feds need state cooperation to fight the “drug war,” and that has rapidly evaporated in the last few years with state legalization, practically nullifying the ban.”

    “The lesson here is pretty straight forward. When enough people say, ‘No!’ to the federal government, and enough states pass laws backing those people up, there’s not much the feds can do to shove their so-called laws, regulations or mandates down our throats,” Tenth Amendment Center founder and executive director Michael Boldin said.

  4. Rod is on the Gas

    January 21, 2016 at 8:28 am

    It’s very simple to me.

    Be on the side of cannabis, it doesn’t matter which face spews the news. Campaign promises filled with vote getting lies is unfortunately, politics as usual. Look at what the Canadian elections recently reminded us of. After election the jolt of reality is sometimes bitter.

    I do agree that constantly putting forth the question of prohibition’s repeal, is huge, the national arena is listening. Never before have I seen so many cannabis related conversations in politics. That’s a very good thing. Let’s step-up the media’s dialog. Cannabis is red-hot this election.

  5. Steve Poer

    January 21, 2016 at 8:21 am

    Marijuana should be decriminalized and we should quit wasting tax money prosecuting people, mostly young people, for something much less damaging than alcohol, which is legal in all 50 states. The war on drugs has been a obvious and misguided failure.

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