Boulder, Colorado — The theme of CNBC's Republican primary presidential debate may be "Your Money, Your Vote," but residents of the idyllic mountainside city where the debate will be held are more curious about the candidates' stances on a different kind of green: legalized marijuana.
The town, affectionately nicknamed "The People's Republic of Boulder" for its liberal politics and New Age vibe, is home to nearly three dozen pot dispensaries, many of which are heavily trafficked by the 30,000 students who attend the town's flagship university.
"We're a very legitimate industry now, and we've gotta take the taboo out of it," Zach Peale, a general manager at Headquarters Cannabis Co., told Mic. "It's a huge market, it's a forever-growing industry and there are going to be tons of jobs. I've already seen that firsthand just from being in Boulder."
Nearly three years after the passage of Colorado's Amendment 64, the popular ballot initiative that legalized the commercial sale and personal use of marijuana across the state, liberal Boulder has been at the forefront of local economies across the state reaping the financial benefits of legal weed. Taxes on grow operations, medical sales and recreational marijuana transactions in 2015 have added $1,932,108 to the city's coffers — and that was just in the first five months of 2015.
So how do the city's most lucrative agricultural workers feel about hosting Wednesday night's Republican primary debate? In a word, skeptical.
What they said: "Oh my God," groaned Gigi Manrique, an employee at Green Dreams Cannabis, a medical marijuana dispensary in Boulder, when asked about the current slate of candidates' views on marijuana.
"I don't know if any of them are super friendly with the idea," she said.
Manrique's response was representative of the vast majority of the dispensary employees, managers and customers that Mic spoke with regarding the Republican Party's stance on marijuana legalization. Of seven dispensary employees we talked to (as well as one employee at a burrito joint who offered to sell an eighth of an ounce of marijuana for a heavily discounted $30 after his shift was over), every single person self-identified as a probable supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist who describes himself as "open" to the legalization of marijuana.
Sanders also took the lion's share of support when the employees were asked which candidate they would most like to share a joint with, and with good reason: A Sanders rally Oct. 10 rally at the University of Colorado Boulder drew an estimated 9,000. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has controversially reserved just 150 tickets to Wednesday's debate for faculty, staff and students.
Marijuana legalization "shouldn't be a partisan issue," said Peale, "but it seems to be a partisan issue. Definitely the Democrats seem to be more in favor. I think that's just the progressive idealism that they have that some of the more conservative candidates don't."
Boulder's young, overwhelmingly liberal citizens — many of whom joked to reporters that the number of Republicans on Wednesday's debate stage will double the conservative population of Boulder County — are adding candidate hostility to marijuana to their long list of grievances against the debate, which range from the limited number of tickets for University of Colorado Boulder students to the general existence of the Republican Party.
"It's such bullshit," a student named Mark told Mic on campus. "It's, like, why even have it in Boulder at all? They're the opposite of everything we stand for."
But whether its citizens like it or not, this hippie-friendly college town at the foot of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains will host a debate among candidates whose opinions on Colorado's newest cash crop range from cautious neutrality to indignant outrage.
Billionaire front-runner Donald Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that "they've got a lot of problems going on right now in Colorado, some big problems" due to marijuana legalization. Dr. Ben Carson has stated he wants to "intensify" the so-called war on drugs. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, whose stepdaughter lost her life to drug addiction, passionately argued in a previous debate that marijuana is a "gateway" drug. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush felt obligated to tweet an apology to his elderly mother for admitting he had smoked marijuana 40 years ago.
Perhaps no candidate has come out more forcefully against marijuana legalization than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has threatened to use the full might of the federal government to quash legalization efforts in individual states.
"If you're getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it," Christie warned in July. "As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws."
If Christie's viral confrontation with an Iowa nurse who supported access to weed earlier this month is any indication, his stance on the issue has only quickened. His reputation, according to Boulder dispensaries, precedes him.
"He's saying that we're pretty much violating federal law and he would absolutely overturn legalization and not leave it up to the states," Peale said. Despite this, one bearded customer at the Village Green Society, a recreational dispensary near Boulder's popular Pearl Street pedestrian mall, said that he'd like to "smoke Christie out and take him to Chipotle, see if that chills him out."
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is frequently seen as the lone voice against the hardline prohibition advocated by the rest of his colleagues, even holding a private fundraiser in July at the National Cannabis Industry Association's business summit in Denver. But while the neo-libertarian has stated that the federal government shouldn't meddle in the affairs of states that have chosen to liberalize their marijuana laws, his actual stance on the issue of straight-up legalization is, well, hazy.
"I really haven't taken a stand on," Paul said last November, "the actual legalization. I haven't really taken a stand on that, but I'm against the federal government telling them they can't."
Fortunately for Colorado's pot retailers, the federalist approach to marijuana legalization is slowly growing in popularity among the current crop of Republican candidates. Of the 15 declared Republican candidates, at least eight have stated that the federal government should let states handle their own marijuana policy. Hardline social conservative Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, recently used marijuana legalization as a hypothetical mechanism to allow individuals to refuse to serve same-sex couples, a case of strange political bedfellows if there ever were one.
"Let's let Colorado have at it for a few years, and let's see how that works out for them," Huckabee told a CBS station in Des Moines, Iowa. "How come it is that liberals are OK with not keeping the federal law when it comes to the marijuana laws, and it's OK for the states to ignore it, but when it comes to a county clerk in Kentucky who doesn't believe that she can abide by a federal court ruling... that she goes to jail?"
Pot purveyors, for their part, say they're more than willing to extend the olive branch — or marijuana stem — to conservatives who are skeptical of legalization.
"If there's anything to be said about cannabis, it's the healing nature of the plant as a whole," said Manrique. "There is nothing negative that comes off of it or from it."
In that spirit, most of the employees at Boulder-area dispensaries are more than willing to host any of the Republican candidates at their locations. "Yeah!" Manrique said of extending such an invitation. "I mean, if any of the candidates were truly interested and believed and supported what we were doing, absolutely."
"I think it would be a great eye-opening experience for them," echoed Peale. "Just to see what can happen and what is happening and what could happen across the nation... We have one of the nicest shops in Boulder, so I would say this would be a good place for them to check out!"