Friday, April 28, 2017

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Shortly after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced legislation that would remove marijuana from the most restrictive category of the Controlled Substances Act, his chief opponent announced plans to achieve the same goal.

Hillary ClintonFormer Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, still widely considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, said in November that she would like to reschedule cannabis under the CSA. That 1970 law, signed by President Richard Nixon, lists legally controlled substances in five categories, each ranked on how addictive it is, how dangerous it is, and how useful it is as medicine.

Marijuana listed under schedule 1

Weed is listed under schedule 1, drugs considered especially hazardous, especially addictive, and medically useless. Others on this list include heroin, peyote, and synthetic cannabis. The DEA, which enforces the CSA, has never been able to provide a good explanation for why that is, given the abundant lack of any evidence that marijuana is particularly damaging.

Clinton spoke about the issue Nov. 7 during a rally in South Carolina. Her remarks followed comments she made at the first Democrat debate, held in Nevada in October. During the debate, she was asked whether she was ready to renounce her opposition to full legalization and said she wasn’t.

Sanders would support legalization

But the conversation has moved by leaps and bounds in the weeks since. Sanders, also asked about legalization, said during the debate that he would support it. He later said he wants to move weed to a lower schedule. And he followed that with legislation that would remove cannabis not just from schedule 1 but from the entire CSA.

Clinton’s comments in November came soon after Sanders announced his bill, a sign she sees a need to compete with him on the issue. But she still hasn’t echoed his call for full legalization, saying the nation needs more time to see how reforms play out in Colorado and other states where pot is legal for any use.

But even with her hesitancy, any move to reschedule would make it easier for states to legalize the drug. It could also hasten the end of all federal prohibitions. Under its current listing in schedule 1, cannabis cannot be legalized at the federal level.

Rescheduling would allow research into marijuana

marijuanaInclusion on schedule 1 also means weed can’t be used for research purposes. This prohibition has made it almost impossible for scientists to study the drug and its potential benefits.

Clinton proposed moving marijuana from its current place to schedule 2, a list that has “less abuse potential” in the eyes of the government. Cocaine, meth, and PCP are all on this schedule, as are other substances with high potential for abuse but limited medical uses. It’s much easier for scientists to study the benefits of drugs in this category.

“What I do want is for us to support research into medical marijuana, because a lot more states have passed medical marijuana than have legalized marijuana, so we’ve got two different experiences or even experiments going on right now,” Clinton said at a town hall gathering in South Carolina. “And the problem with medical marijuana is there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence about how well it works for certain conditions, but we haven’t done any research. Why? Because it’s considered what’s called a schedule 1 drug, and you can’t even do research in it.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is backing his words with action, in the form of a bill that could lead to the national legalization of marijuana.

Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersThe legislation comes on the heels of comments by Sanders, one of two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2016, that he wanted to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. That Nixon-era law divides DEA-controlled drugs into five categories, or schedules.

Schedule 1 is the most restrictive, and the feds believe the substances on it are the most dangerous, the most addictive, and the least medically useful. It includes heroin, LSD, peyote – and weed. Reformers have been pushing to reschedule marijuana for many years, with no success.

Sanders’ legislation would allow states to legalize

But that could change. Sanders filed his bill in the Senate in early November, saying it would free all states to legalize. The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act is similar to a House bill authored by Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, who refiled his legislation this year as the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act. Both bills would remove cannabis from schedule 1 and the rest of the CSA.

It would also mean an end to federal criminal enforcement of weed laws. With a regulated legal industry spreading from coast to coast, Americans could buy, possess, and use the drug almost anywhere, just like booze. Prices would drop far enough to strangle the black market. Drug cartels would lose a major source of profit. And violent crime might plummet.

“Just as alcohol prohibition failed in the 1920s, it’s clear marijuana prohibition is failing today,” Polis said. “For decades, the federal ban on marijuana has wasted tax dollars, impeded our criminal justice system, lined the pockets of drug cartels, and trampled on states’ ability to set their own public health laws. . . . Today’s introduction of the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act in the Senate is a huge step forward in the movement to enact the commonsense drug laws needed to grow our economy and restore fairness to our justice system.”

Acting on recent comments

Smoking Marijuana JointSanders filed his bill just days after promising to reschedule pot if elected. His initial proposal would have moved marijuana to a lower schedule, but the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act would go further and strike the drug from the CSA entirely.

The Senate bill departs from the House version on one important point. Polis’ legislation would move federal marijuana regulation from the DEA to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and would treat it like alcohol, with similar rules for importing, shipping, and selling it. Sanders’ bill doesn’t have such a provision.

Pro-weed groups were quick to applaud Sanders for acting.

“This is the first time a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition has been introduced in the U.S. Senate,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority. “A growing majority of Americans want states to be able to enact their own marijuana laws without harassment from the DEA, and lawmakers should listen. The introduction of this bill proves that the defeat of the Ohio marijuana monopoly measure that wasn’t widely supported in our movement isn’t doing anything to slow down our national momentum.”

Election Day 2016 is roughly a year away, but candidates are already staking out clear ground on drug policy reform. One candidate has come out in favor of full legalization, while another follows a libertarian philosophy friendly to the idea.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democrat
Former Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democrat

Now a major anti-weed group has launched a push to defeat Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat. It could have the opposite effect by sending reform-minded voters their way, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the people at Project SAM (Smart Alternatives to Marijuana), the group behind the anti-cannabis campaign.

Project SAM is led by two of the most influential weed opponents, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and lobbyist Kevin Sabet. They actively fight efforts to reform drug laws anywhere in the United States, insisting marijuana is as dangerous as alcohol or heroin and should be banned everywhere.

Sabet and Kennedy evaluated candidates in both parties based on their “opposition to marijuana legalization for recreational purposes,” their “support for prevention, intervention, and treatment of marijuana use,” and the “regulated, FDA-approved approach to the legitimate medical use of marijuana components.”

Project SAM dedicated to blocking rescheduling efforts

Drug warriors frequently complain that weed should be evaluated by the FDA, like prescription medications, before patients may use it to treat their symptoms. The problem with that approach is that the Controlled Substances Act and the listing of pot under that law’s most restrictive category make it impossible to submit MMJ for FDA review. Groups like Project SAM want to keep it that way by blocking efforts to reschedule the drug.

The group gave Sanders and Paul each a grade of D-, their lowest ranking for any candidate. If anything, the two may take that as a sign they’re doing well, since weed is sure to be a central issue in the election, and polls show support for reform is high.

Sanders keen to reschedule cannabis

Paul and Sanders make handy targets for the drug war crowd. At the first Democratic debate, in October, Sanders said he would vote for legalization in Nevada next year if he lived there. Later in the month, he said he wants to reschedule cannabis, which is currently listed under the CSA alongside heroin and LSD.

Paul: Leave it to the states

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Republican
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Republican

Paul, on the other hand, has said he thinks states rather than the federal government should decide whether pot is legal. That position fits with Paul’s libertarian leanings and his support for states’ rights issues. Paul was already considered a long-shot for the GOP nomination, and his hopes are sinking by the day, but Sanders has at least some hope of capturing the presidency.

Project SAM didn’t unload on every candidate; they had favorites, too. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, scored an A despite his refusal to say whether he has tried marijuana (you know he has), as did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and surgeon Ben Carson, both Republicans. Carson has promised to “intensify” the war on drugs, while Christie opposes medical marijuana in his state and has vowed to stamp out legalization nationwide.

Businesswoman Carly Fiorina, meanwhile, got a B even though she has taken a firm position against legalization. Her sin: acknowledging that cannabis might have medicinal value. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received only a B-, in part because she has tempered her opposition to recreational legalization by saying she’ll keep an open mind.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a leading Democratic candidate for president, announced at the party’s first debate that he would support legalization of marijuana if he could vote on a ballot initiative in Nevada. In late October, Sanders went even further, saying the federal government should reschedule weed under the Controlled Substances Act.

Bernie SandersThat law, passed in 1970 during the first Nixon administration, launched the modern war on drugs. It categorizes all substances that are controlled by the DEA, using a series of “schedules” ranked by how addictive, how dangerous, and how medically useful the government believes the drugs are.

Marijuana has been listed on the most restrictive schedule, schedule 1, since the CSA took effect. Reformers have pushed time and again to move it to a lower schedule, to no effect. Schedule 1 includes the drugs that are considered the most addictive, the most hazardous, and the least medically useful, including heroin, LSD, and synthetic cannabis.

Sanders dedicated to changing criminal justice system

Sanders announced his rescheduling plan during a speech Oct. 28 at George Mason University in Virginia.

“In the United States we have 2.2 million people in jail today, more than any other country,” he said. “And we’re spending about $80 billion a year to lock people up. We need major changes in our criminal justice system, including changes in drug laws. Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That’s wrong. That has got to change.”

Sanders still stands as the only mainstream presidential candidate to publicly support full legalization. Though he says he has never used pot, he has offered stronger support for reform than any other candidate, including his plan to reschedule weed.

If he succeeds at that goal, it would mark a major step toward legalization at the federal level. Marijuana is now legal for any use in four states and the District of Columbia, while another 33 states permit some form of medical weed, but it remains prohibited under federal criminal law.

Illegal at the federal level

bluntsWeed can’t be legalized at the federal level while listed under schedule 1. Either Congress, the DEA, or both must act to reschedule marijuana first, though there is no sign that is likely to happen in the near future. The DEA has repeatedly balked at moving weed from schedule 1, and Congress has been unwilling to act so far.

Even if rescheduling isn’t on the close horizon, Sanders’ comments demonstrate how central marijuana has become to the 2016 election. Just two candidates on either side of the aisle (both Republicans) have said they would fight legalization if elected, and neither is considered a serious contender for the White House.

Sanders’ main opponent in the Democratic primaries is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who leads him in most national polls. She has said she supports medical pot but isn’t ready to back full legalization. At the debate, Sanders used her hesitancy as a chance to stake populist ground on drug policy.

“I would vote (for legalization) because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for nonviolent offenses,” he said when asked about Nevada’s legal weed vote next year. “We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana. I think we have to think through this war on drugs which has done an enormous amount of damage.”

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Three debates into the 2016 presidential primary race, it’s clear one party leans toward legalization while the other opposes it. It’s not quite as simple as that, but as a general rule, the Democrats are giving the idea a more sympathetic ear than Republicans.

Democratic Primary Debate 2015But which, at this early date, is the better choice for voters who care about weed and criminal justice reform? And what do both sides plan to do about pot if and when they enter the White House in 2017? Here’s a look at where the Democrats and the Republicans really stand on legal cannabis.

The Democrats

At their first debate Oct. 13, it was readily apparent that most of the candidates on stage support at least some degree of marijuana reform. Only one, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, outright said he would support legalization if he had the chance, but his chief Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said she backs medical marijuana and is still undecided on legalizing recreational weed.

The other candidates, including former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, weren’t asked directly for their views on legalization. But O’Malley is studying the issue on the ground, and Chafee has said before that he is open to the possibility of legal weed nationwide.

Webb, meanwhile, is a longtime supporter of decriminalization as a means to repair the overburdened justice system, though he is a long-shot, both in the race for president and in the second-tier contest for a vice presidential nomination. Webb is generally regarded as conservative for a Democrat, but his position on legalization is one of the most liberal in the party.

That said, Sanders stole the thunder on legalization. Asked by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper how he would vote on a proposal to legalize pot in Nevada, he said he would support it. That initiative will appear on the statewide ballot in 2016.

“I suspect I would vote yes,” Sanders said. “And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana. I think we have to think through this war on drugs, which has done an enormous amount of damage. We need to rethink our criminal justice system, we’ve got a lot of work to do in that area.”

The Republicans

Republican Primary DebateSo far, after two debates, no candidate in the GOP primary has come out in support of legalization. It’s unlikely any of them will, even if the topic comes up at a future debate – and it might not. One Republican, former Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, has come the closest, saying he’s open-minded on the issue, but the rest have either rejected the idea or taken a wait-and-see approach.

Paul is no longer viewed as a credible contestant for the presidency. The current front-runner, billionaire Donald Trump, has said in the past that he favors legalizing all drugs, but he disowned those comments earlier this year, telling a conservative gathering it would be a mistake to legalize even marijuana.

Two Republicans, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, have publicly said they would stamp out legalization if they win. Neither has any real chance of winning the nomination, let alone the presidency, but their strident tone has made it clear that the best hope for cannabis reform lies on the other side of the aisle.

 

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Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders became the first major party candidate to throw his full weight behind efforts to legalize marijuana.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at Democratic Debate on CNN, Oct. 13, 2015At the Democratic debate Oct. 13, Sanders told CNN moderator Anderson Cooper he would vote “yes” if he were a Nevada resident with a chance to vote on legalization next year. The state could become one of the latest to allow the cultivation, sale, and possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use.

Cooper raised the weed question late in the debate between five Democratic candidates: Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

“Sen. Sanders, right here in Nevada, there will be a measure to legalize recreational marijuana on the 2016 ballot,” Cooper said. “You’ve said you smoked marijuana twice; it didn’t quite work for you. If you were a Nevada resident, how would you vote?”

Sanders wasted little time in answering: “I suspect I would vote yes. And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana. I think we have to think through this war on drugs.”

The senator’s comments drew strong applause from a rowdy, progressive Democratic audience. They marked the first time a major candidate from either party has taken a positive position on full legalization. Clinton had previously said she supports medical marijuana but isn’t yet ready to back recreational use.

Clinton remained true to her words

Unfortunately, she didn’t change her position at the debate. Asked directly by moderator Juan Carlos Lopez, Clinton said she would stand by her earlier comments and continue to oppose legalization for personal use.

“Secretary Clinton, you told Christiane Amanpour you didn’t smoke pot when you were young and you’re not going to start now,” Lopez said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “When asked about legalizing recreational marijuana, you told her, let’s wait and see how it plays out in Colorado and Washington. It’s been more than a year since you’ve said that. Are you ready to take a position tonight?”

Clinton quickly responded, “No. I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today. I do support the use of medical marijuana, and I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we’re going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief.”

Key issues in 2016 election

Marijuana LeafColorado and Washington State legalized marijuana in 2012, while Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia joined them in 2014. Ohio is set to vote on legalization in November, and several other states, including California and New York, could tackle the issue next year.

No Republican candidate has offered support for legalization, though former Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has said he would consider it. At least two GOP candidates have said they would stamp out legalization if elected.

The bad news is, the Democratic debate didn’t draw full support from every candidate on the stage. The good news is, one candidate did commit to the idea, and another, the front-runner, left the door open to further change. It’s also clear that weed is going to be a topic of central concern in this election – and that, too, is good news.

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It’s more than a year before election 2016. Still, even at this early point, it can be helpful to get a sense of where things are likely headed in next year’s presidential contest. This is especially true when it comes to marijuana-related issues, since the pace of reform is changing dramatically, from day to day.

So here is a brief, if extremely tentative guide to the early campaign season, 2016. From candidates who support legalization to those who vow to fight it, marijuana is sure to play a central role all the way through.

Hillary Clinton, Democrat

Hillary Clinton

Still widely considered the all-around frontrunner in 2016, Hillary Clinton has yet to take a cemented position on legal weed, one way or the other. She has offered relatively strong support for medical marijuana, but she hasn’t thrown her weight behind full legalization. She hasn’t ruled it out, either, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that she will.

 

Chris Christie, Republican

governor chris christie

Chris Christie, New Jersey’s notoriously loud governor, is considered a decided longshot in the pursuit of the GOP nomination. He’s currently running well behind the pack. But he’s also the one candidate who has packed the most bluster into his threats to stop legalization. Like fellow Republican Marco Rubio, Christie says he’ll use the weight of the federal government to stop states like Colorado from changing their cannabis laws.

 

Bernie Sanders, Democrat

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is widely considered the most likely candidate to back legalization. He hasn’t done it yet, but an announcement could come any day. If it does, he would be the first major-party candidate in modern American history to back full legalization of marijuana. Sanders has picked up a growing base of support within the Democratic Party, posing a left-wing challenge to Clinton’s presumptive frontrunner status.

 

Donald Trump, Republican?

Donald Trump

God only knows whether Donald Trump will even be a Republican in six months, let alone whether he’ll push for legal grass. His position on legalization, like his position on almost everything, is all over the map. But don’t expect a strong push for reform from The Donald anytime soon; most recently he said he’s against it. That could easily change should he survive to the general election, either as the GOP nominee or as a third-party candidate.

 

Jeb Bush, Republican

Jeb Bush

Like most of the rest of the Republican field, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wants legalization left to the states. He’s against the idea but supports states’ rights to try it if they want. In other words, he’s unlikely to seek a Christie-style crackdown. But he isn’t likely to be very helpful to the reform movement, either. And it may not matter: His prospects aren’t great at the moment.

 

Rand Paul, Republican

Rand PaulThe same is true of Rand Paul, senator of Kentucky. Once the GOP’s Great Libertarian Hope, Paul now stands almost no chance of winning the nomination. This is too bad, since he’s the lone Republican candidate who generally supports reform. He hasn’t backed legalization quite yet, but he’s seen as friendly to the idea.

 

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We won some and we lost some this Election Day. Actually, we lost one and won everything else. It was, indeed, a very big day for marijuana reform across the country.

Marijuana LeavesTwo new states voted to legalize recreational marijuana: Oregon and Alaska. That brings the total number of states where pot is legal to four, including Washington and Colorado.

At the same time, voters in Washington, D.C. legalized pot by a wide margin. That vote could be in jeopardy, though, since Congress has the power to overturn local District laws.

 

There was one big defeat on Nov. 4: Florida rejected a medical marijuana amendment. Most Floridians supported the measure, but not the critical 60 percent needed to enact it.

The big wins of the day were in Oregon and Alaska. Oregon approved legalization with about 54 percent of the vote. Voters in Alaska opted for legalization with 52 percent of the vote. Both margins were wide enough to support the contention that cannabis reform is rapidly spreading across the country.

The New Laws

Oregon’s new law will allow residents and visitors over 21 to carry up to an ounce of weed in public. Oregonians can also keep up to eight ounces at home and grow up to four plants, making this the most liberal legalization policy passed to date.

In Alaska, residents and visitors over 21 will be able to possess up to an ounce and grow up to six plants at home. Residents were already able to possess up to four ounces at home under a state Supreme Court ruling from the 1970s, but now legal cultivators and sellers will supplant the underground market.

On the other side of the country, meanwhile, a whopping 70 percent of D.C. voters passed a marijuana legalization measure. The ordinance allows adults over 21 to possess up to two ounces and grow up to six plants on private property.

That policy could be overturned by Republicans in Congress now that they control both houses. Some House members have threatened to do so, including Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, whose congressional district neighbors D.C.

It’s not clear whether that will happen. President Obama must sign any such legislation, and he could alienate Democrats in the District if he were to do so.

Florida Vote Fell Short

The one big loss of the day came in the Sunshine State, where 58 percent of voters backed medical weed. That wasn’t enough to make the proposal law, however. This marks a setback for the future of pot in the Deep South, but may not reflect any national trends.

Several communities in Michigan rejected legalization, but several others approved it. Michigan is now the centerpiece in the local fight to legalize marijuana one city at a time.

Marijuana MapLooking Forward

Overall, it was a landmark moment for weed. And it bodes extremely well for the future of reform across the country.

Several more states could vote for legalization in two years, including California, Arizona, Nevada, and Maine. Other targets for the near future include Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Delaware, Connecticut and New Mexico.

Presidential elections typically draw a much younger pool of voters than midterms. That means 2016 is likely to see a new wave of pro-legalization voters who will almost certainly propel a few states to victory.

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