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