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.
That 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
Weed 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.”
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.
The 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
Sanders 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.”