Despite her emotional debate moment, Fiorina is still wrong about the alleged dangers of marijuana CNN/Screenshot

In the second Republican debate where on a number of occasions tensions ran high, Carly Fiorina had arguably the rawest emotional moment of the night.

When the topic of marijuana came up, she broke out of her usual assertiveness and added a deeply personal touch to the discussion.

“I very much hope that I’m the only person on the stage that can say this,” remarked a somber Fiorina. “My husband Frank and I buried a child to drug addiction,” she said, her grief evident. Adding that due to personal experience, she agreed with Rand Paul who said there ought to be a focus on rehabilitative measures rather than incarceration, and that she believes should be allowed to make their own marijuana laws.

Fiorina added, however:

“We are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It’s not. And the marijuana that kids are smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago.”

She’s right that marijuana and alcohol are different, and it’s true that there are risks involved with consuming both of them.

But the fact is, marijuana is measurably less dangerous than many legal drugs. As Fiorina wrote in her book Rising to the Challenge, her stepdaughter Lori passed away after struggling with an alcohol and prescription pill addiction that was coupled with bulimia.

The scenario is tragic, and as Fiorina said during the debate, one that too many families in America face.

Yet this leads to a broader question when marijuana is invoked: Just how dangerous is that drug? And for what purposes should it remain illegal? Particularly illegal to the extent that young people, especially the least well-off, are thrown in jail, their lives ruined over it?

As the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote:

“The point (Fiorina) was trying to make was that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol. She says that today’s marijuana is a lot stronger than the marijuana her generation grew up with, and links marijuana use to addiction to other, far more dangerous drugs, like the ones that cost her stepdaughter her life.

Linking marijuana to more dangerous drugs is a version of the “gateway hypothesis” — that pot use inevitably leads to experimentation with more dangerous drugs. But the evidence does not support this claim. It’s true that many people who use hard drugs like heroin and cocaine have tried marijuana in the past. But the overwhelming majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to try other drugs.”

These are crucial points to examine if the goal is to think rationally about criminal justice reform. For too long, policymakers have taken a dogmatic approach to the war on drugs, assuming that a militarized battle against drug use is the answer to a problem often fueled by addiction and poverty. While it’s a good sign that on a bipartisan basis, politicians are increasingly focused on rehabilitation rather than jailing, myths about drug use, particularly marijuana, abound in ways that often cloud rational discussion.

As Ingraham also noted, a Lancet study conducted in 2010 demonstrates that marijuana is generally less harmful to individuals and society than alcohol. He further cites countless statistics showing that marijuana users are, relatively speaking, not a danger to themselves and others. Given the wide availability of this information and the fact that public attitudes about marijuana have changed vastly to the point where a majority support legalization, there’s no doubt that policy in this area will continue to change.

Even Fiorina and Bush, who disagree with marijuana use, have conceded that states have the right to set their own policies. Paul and Cruz also share that perspective.

Today, the question isn’t whether marijuana will continue on its path to legality, but how it will be regulated. It’s the politicians who need to play catch-up and ready themselves for the challenge.

Corie  Whalen About the author:
Corie Whalen is a political consultant and writer based in Houston, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CorieWhalen
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