Cannabis Marijuana in the Debates

Did you miss marijuana being discussed at the big debate on Monday night? Maybe it was because you watched the wrong event.

While presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump didn’t clash over cannabis during their much-hyped meeting at Hofstra State University, marijuana issues did come up in two other electoral debates taking place on the same night.


Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Mike Weinholtz were asked about medical cannabis legislation during their debate at Utah State University.

And in Texas, Republican Devon Anderson, the current district attorney for Harris County (which contains Houston) and challenger Kim Ogg, a Democrat, took opposite sides on the question of whether misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses should be prosecuted during their debate.

A comprehensive medical marijuana bill was approved by the Utah Senate this year, but it couldn’t find enough support in the House. During Monday’s gubernatorial debate, incumbent Herbert said he wasn’t yet ready to offer his support for far-reaching cannabis legislation in the next session, arguing that he wants to see more research first but that the federal government has hampered studies to date.

“There needs to be a process where this can be a controlled substance just like any other medicinal use out there of any other drug, prescribed by a doctor and given by a pharmacist where we can control the quality and quantity and not have self-medication,” he said.

Herbert added that he has a niece who uses cannabidiol (CBD) extracts to treat a seizure disorder in accordance with the state’s existing limited medical cannabis law.

“We’ll see what bubbles up in the legislative session this upcoming time,” he said.

Weinholtz, for his part, is much more ready to sign comprehensive medical marijuana legislation if elected governor.

“I stand with the 71 percent of Utahans who are in favor of legalizing medical cannabis,” he said. “[Medical marijuana] has positive aspects that can help people who are suffering from various conditions.”

But, he added that he’s not on board with full legalization, calling it “a bridge too far for Utah.”

Weinholtz made headlines earlier this year by revealing that his wife is under law enforcement investigation for using medical marijuana to treat arthritis pain.

During the Texas prosecutors debate, the candidates butted heads over whether people caught with small amounts of marijuana should be prosecuted.

Ogg criticized incumbent Anderson for overseeing an average of 8,000 to 12,000 such prosecutions per year.

“I believe that our public wants something different,” she said, adding that public resources would be better spent “directed toward rape, toward robbery, toward murder.”

Citing racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement, she said prohibition policies “have been unfairly applied in minority communities…unfairly applied to the poor and people who can’t fight back, and used to oppress communities.”

Anderson defended her office’s practices, saying that she has enacted a policy that already diverts several thousand people a year from prosecution but that it would be wrong to stop prosecuting marijuana offenses across the board.

“If you don’t like a law you go to the legislature and seek to change it,” she said. “You don’t just decide not to prosecute something because you don’t personally agree with it.”

But while marijuana being discussed in the Utah and Texas debates is a sign of the issue’s increasing prominence, reform advocates were disappointed that Clinton and Trump didn’t mention cannabis in their presidential debate, even though it contained a section focused on criminal justice reform.

Both candidates have already pledged that they would respect the right of states to implement their own marijuana laws without federal interference. But at a time when a growing majority of voters support legalizing cannabis, it struck some observers as a big missed opportunity that neither candidate saw fit to mention the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are still arrested for marijuana in the U.S. every year during a discussion about crime policy.

There are still two more presidential debates on the calendar, though, so Trump and Clinton could still have a cannabis conversation before Election Day.

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