Republican Presidential Debate

GOP candidates divided on marijuana

GOP debate it: Marijuana
GOP debate it: Marijuana

If there's one thing as surprising as the fact that outsider newcomers have outpaced establishment veterans in the Republican presidential race so far, it's that the contest is playing out in a state that has legalized marijuana.

After all the law enforcement expenditures and jail time meted out in America's war on drugs in recent decades, the political system has begun a turn — on overhauling the criminal justice system for nonviolent offenders, and on the legal status of marijuana. Colorado became the first state to legalize weed, but debate over the issue has spread across the country, and into the GOP race.

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The CNN debate in California last month revealed a divide on the issue. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the leading libertarian in the Republican race, defended Colorado's right to legalize against skeptical rivals.

"I personally think that this is a crime for which the only victim is the individual, and I think that America has to take a different attitude," said Paul, who has pressed in Congress for criminal justice reform. "I would like to see more rehabilitation and less incarceration. I'm a fan of the drug courts, which try to direct you back towards work and less time in jail."

"But the bottom line is the states," Paul concluded. "We say we like the 10th Amendment, until we start talking about this. And I think the federal government has gone too far, I think that the war on drugs has had a racial outcome, and really has been something that has really damaged our inner cities."

That drew a strong rebuttal from Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a former federal prosecutor who vows to take a more traditional and aggressive law enforcement stance in the White House.

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David A. Grogan | CNBC

"If Senator Paul thinks that the only victim is the person, look at the decrease in productivity, look at the way people get used and move on to other drugs when they use marijuana as a gateway drug," Christie said. "It is 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. That's why I'll enforce the federal law."

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Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina takes a different stance. Like Paul, she defends the rights of states to make their own decisions. But like Christie, she emphasized in the CNN debate that drug use is not a victimless crime. Fiorina told a searing personal story — the drug-abuse related death of her stepdaughter a few years ago — to make the point.

The issue could become even more pointed in Colorado on Oct. 28 at the CNBC Republican debate.

Watch CNBC's "Your Money, Your Vote: The Republican Presidential Debate" on Wednesday, Oct. 28. The debate will feature two sets of candidates discussing critical issues facing America today, including job growth, taxes and the health of our economy. Coverage begins at 5 p.m. E.T.