NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The arguments were, "Think of the children," versus, "Everybody's doing it" — and if those two cliches weren't enough, the debate kicked off at 4:20 p.m.
The debate over marijuana legalization at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference re-filled the conference's main ballroom after a few hours of venue-emptying panels Thursday afternoon.
Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico and libertarian presidential candidate, took the pro-weed side while former New York Republican Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle argued against legalization.
"Having a debate right now over whether or not to legalize marijuana is kind of like having a debate over whether the sun is going to come up tomorrow," Johnson said, drawing cheers from the audience.
"I am one of the 100 million Americans who have used marijuana," he added. "I am anything but criminal for having done that."
[sharequote align="center"]"Having a debate right now over whether or not to legalize marijuana is kind of like having a debate over whether the sun is going to come up tomorrow."[/sharequote]
While Johnson donned the mantle of sometime-weed-smoker, Buerkle burnished her credentials as a "mother of six and grandmother of 16," setting the tone she'd adopt for the entire debate.
"We are on the cusp of finding out just what kind of damage this drug can do," Buerkle said, comparing marijuana today to tobacco in the 1950s. "Do we want to stupefy our youth? That's what marijuana and drugs do."
She also harped on the damage that drug addiction can wreak on families, and referenced "brain-scrambling mental effects," cancer-causing properties and addictive qualities of marijuana smoking.
Buerkle decried the "softening of the conservative movement" on marijuana legalization as Johnson
"Conservatives ought to embrace the fact that these are people making their own decisions," Johnson said of marijuana smokers. "Freedom, liberty!"
He went on to call cannabis a "miracle drug," predicting, "In 20 years, 20 percent of all pharmaceuticals will be cannabis-based. This stuff really has genuine, healing properties to it."
He called marijuana "a safer alternative" to alcohol and harder drugs, and hammered the point that, "half of everybody you know has done marijuana."
It "may not be the smartest decision," he admitted, but legal weed is taking over the U.S. in an inevitable wave — and that's a good thing, Johnson said.
Buerkle took umbrage at what she perceived to be Johnson's cavalier take on marijuana use.
"It isn't funny that we're putting our kids and the future of this country at risk," she said. "Can anyone tell me that legalizing marijuana will increase our greatness?"
Where will the Republican party end up on the issue of marijuana legalization?
If the hearty cheers for both speakers at the 2015 CPAC debate is any indication, the rift within the party on the weed issue is hard and deep — and its unclear if it's bridgeable.
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