Republican presidential candidate, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, speaks during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (Mark J. Terrill, The Associated Press)

Op-ed: Carly Fiorina’s strong debate misses one key point on pot

An open letter to presidential candidate Carly Fiorina,

I am truly sorry for the loss of your stepdaughter, Lori, whose story I hadn’t heard before Wednesday night’s Republican debate. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child, I can only try to empathize. Addiction claimed my Aunt Nancie. She was my hero.

Nancie was the epitome of New York cool with her Upper East Side studio and faded tattoos and dyed crimson hair, a cigarette always resting on her bright red lips. She’d regale me with stories from the set of the latest commercial she was working on while casually sipping a glass that invariably had more Jack Daniels in it than I knew. When her neighbors at 77th and Lex grew concerned after not seeing her for a while, paramedics found her trying to drink herself to death.

Her hair was so matted they had to cut most of it off.

My uncle tried the best he could, flying Nancie to Missouri so she could get back on her feet, but the drinking had taken its toll. The medications she was prescribed made her feel paranoid and isolated, and while I know you’d never say anything to offend the “bellwether state” of Missouri, she downright hated it. And that’s how she wound up dead in a hotel room, alone, a thousand miles from the city she loved.

She wasn’t a drug addict, despite the fact I’m sure she indulged in a little pot at Woodstock, and she wasn’t a saint, either. She was my hero, though, and a good old-fashioned alcoholic. There’s quite a few in my family, the likes of which this country has been churning out for centuries. The likes of which have held the same office you now aspire to. And even I’m not so sanctimonious that I can’t enjoy Richard Nixon drunk-dialing Ronald Reagan. Now there’s a clip that requires no dares.

But I suppose that’s why I was so disappointed when you said during the debate that “we are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer.” As one of the more thoughtful candidates the GOP is offering up this election season, you surely know that objectively, alcohol is much more harmful than cannabis. A 2015 study in Scientific Reports confirms that it is — by a factor of 114 times.

The problem is that we’re blatantly honest about how dangerous “beer” is and we still have tragedies like Lori and Nancie. I was probably in middle school when I saw my first picture of cirrhosis. I learned early on that bars are violent places and driving drunk carries serious penalties. But I also recall a chart of how much beer I could drink, based on height and weight, and legally drive. People had to create math, that’s how honest we are.

So what good can come of holding on to the fallacy that pot is more dangerous than that?

The conversation we’re having in Colorado is with adults, not children, that are learning how to use cannabis responsibly. It hasn’t been without its bumps — as Maureen Dowd can attest — but we’re learning. Of course, I’m confident there’s a lot less puking than when humans discovered grain alcohol.

When you continue to double down on tired Reefer Madness-era classics like “the marijuana that kids are smoking today is not the same as the marijuana that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago,” it discredits a lot of salient points you make about our failed war on drugs. Adults told me the same thing when I was growing up, as if incredibly potent hashish hadn’t existed for centuries.

That isn’t to discredit some of the amazing innovation that’s occurring in my state. Our best and brightest are definitely breeding some marijuana that would make Jeb cough until he was bluer than the state of Massachusetts on an electoral map. The difference is that they’re doing it within a regulatory framework that prevents diversion to minors in myriad ways. I was never once carded on the black market.

I remember when my friends started trying weed and were fine. Okay, fine would be an understatement. But I was still skeptical because someone had to be wrong: either their brains would melt like an egg on a cast-iron skillet or all old people were liars. Instead, neither was true. The real danger of marijuana isn’t physical, it’s societal.

As you said, we have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Getting arrested for possession of marijuana can leave a college student without federal aid and make it harder to obtain meaningful employment, real consequences that have life-changing effects. The first time I was caught with beer underage, I was written a ticket.

It’s time that the repercussions for pot come into line with the actual harm it represents. The message that marijuana is more dangerous than beer has failed for decades. Let’s start telling kids the truth.

Jake Browne