The candidates stand at their podiums during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (Mark J. Terrill, The Associated Press)

Colorado in spotlight as GOP debate hits on marijuana

More than any other state, Colorado played a prime-time role in the Republican presidential debate Wednesday night thanks to a question about marijuana legalization.

The question came as Colorado is preparing to host the next GOP debate Oct. 28 in Boulder.

CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper posed the question after saying it came from social media users. He asked Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul about former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s pledge to enforce federal law in Colorado to stop recreational marijuana use.

Paul — who became the first major presidential candidate to court the pot industry at a recent Denver fundraiser — put the emphasis on rehabilitation instead of incarceration. “I personally think this is a crime where the only victim is the individual,” Paul said of marijuana use. “And I think America has to take a different attitude.”

He went on to invoke state’s rights and say, “I don’t think the federal government should override the states.”

Paul also used the question to take a shot at Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who has acknowledged smoking pot in high school, suggesting it’s a case of “hypocrisy.”

Bush responded bluntly: “So 40 years ago I smoked marijuana, and I admit it,” adding that his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, is probably not happy that he did — a line that invoked laughter from the audience.

Bush said he believes weed legalization is a state issue, not one for the federal government. “What goes on in Colorado, as far as I’m concerned, that should be a state decision,” he said.

Paul challenged Bush on the remark, noting that he opposed the 2014 ballot measure in Florida to legalize medical marijuana. Bush said he is open to medical marijuana, if the process is done through the legislature, but the 2014 measure had “a huge loophole.”

“It was the first step toward getting to a Colorado place,” he said of the measure.

Given a chance to explain his original statement, Christie blasted recreational marijuana use, saying states shouldn’t be “legalizing gateway drugs,” adding that it leads to decreased productivity and ruins families.

Paul accused Christie of not supporting the 10th Amendment guaranteeing state’s rights. “Colorado has made their decision and I don’t want the federal government interfering and putting moms in jail for simply trying to get their children medication,” he said.

Christie made clear he supports medical marijuana, which is legal in New Jersey.

Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO and failed California U.S. Senate candidate, had the last word. Her daughter died from a drug addiction.

“We must invest more in the treatment of drugs,” she said. “I agree with Sen. Paul, I agree with states rights but we are misleading people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer — it’s not.”

Expect the topic to re-emerge at the Colorado debate hosted by CNBC next month. It’s unavoidable, given the location.

This story was first published on The Spot political blog