Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders will announce his support Wednesday for removing marijuana from a list of the most dangerous drugs outlawed by the federal government — a move that would free states to legalize it without impediments from Washington.
The self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont plans to share his proposal during a town hall meeting with college students that will be broadcast on the Internet across the country from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
“Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use,” Sanders says in prepared remarks for the event provided to The Washington Post. “That’s wrong. That has got to change.”
No other presidential candidate has called for marijuana to be completely removed from the schedule of controlled substances regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Longshot Democratic hopeful Martin O’Malley has said he’d put marijuana on Schedule II, a less strict designation. The party’s front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has repeatedly said she wants to see how legalization experiments in Colorado, Washington and other states play out before committing to any changes at the federal level.
Sanders’s plan would not automatically make marijuana legal nationwide, but states would be allowed to regulate the drug in the same way that state and local laws now govern sales of alcohol and tobacco. And people who use marijuana in states that legalize it would no longer be at risk of federal prosecution.
His plan would also allow marijuana businesses currently operating in states that have legalized it to use banking services and apply for tax deductions that are currently unavailable to them under federal law.
In a 2013 memo, the Justice Department essentially agreed to look the other way in states where marijuana is legal, provided that the marijuana industry in those states remained in compliance with state laws. But this memo isn’t legally binding, and a new administration or a new attorney general could easily reverse course.
Marijuana’s current classification is reserved for drugs with no medically accepted use and a “high potential for abuse.”
Most researchers who work in drug policy say that this designation isn’t appropriate. Last week, the Brookings Institution said that marijuana’s current scheduling status is “stifling medical research.” The American Medical Association has called for marijuana’s scheduling status to be “reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research.”
Sanders has hinted at his position previously, including during a broadcast last week on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on ABC during which he said: “I am not unfavorably disposed to moving toward the legalization of marijuana.”
“We have more people in jail today than any other country on earth,” Sanders told Kimmel. “We have large numbers of lives that have been destroyed because of this war on drugs, and because people were caught smoking marijuana and so forth. I think we have got to end the war on drugs.”
In response to a question during the first Democratic debate, Sanders said he would vote in favor of a local Nevada measure that would legalize recreational pot use.
“I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses,” he said. “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.”
In the first debate, Clinton said she supports the legalization of medical marijuana and alternatives to imprisoning people for non-violent drug crimes. But she stopped short of endorsing legalization, saying she wants “to find out a lot more than we know today” about the experiences of states like Colorado and Washington.
Sanders’s proposal is in line with the thinking of a growing number of Americans and a solid majority of Democrats.
According to a Gallup poll published earlier this month, national support for legalizing pot is at an all-time high, with 58 percent of those surveyed supporting such an outcome.
Still, the ability of Sanders or any Democratic president to move the needle on federal marijuana policy through a reclassification of the drug is likely to face stiff resistance in a Republican controlled Congress.
Medical marijuana is now sold in nearly half of all states, and even one red state has legalized it for recreational use. Veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are clamoring for access to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Loosening pot laws polls better in three swing states than any 2016 presidential candidate.
But in July, conservative House Republicans killed a bipartisan proposal to create a sub-class for marijuana so researchers could simply study the substance legally and offer fresh guidance on whether it should continue to be classified alongside heroin and ecstasy as one of the most dangerous.