Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is pledging to use executive action to deschedule marijuana within the first 100 days of his administration if he is elected president.
In a cannabis reform plan released on Thursday at 4:20 PM EST, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act would be the first step, but that he’d simultaneously press Congress to make legalization a permanent policy through legislation.
The senator said he will nominate an attorney general, Drug Enforcement Administration administrator and Health and Human Services secretary, “who will all work to aggressively end the drug war and legalize marijuana.” Once the attorney general is confirmed, Sanders will issue the executive order to deschedule cannabis.
Sanders, who became the first major presidential candidate to endorse legalization during his last campaign and filed the Senate’s first-ever cannabis descheduling bill in 2015, is expanding on his vision for what a legal cannabis model should look like.
When we said four years ago that we needed to legalize marijuana, it was considered a "radical" idea.
Today, 11 states plus DC have legalized it. Not so radical anymore.
When we're in the White House we will do so nationwide.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) October 24, 2019
“It is time to admit the criminalization of marijuana was a disaster, especially for communities of color, and allow those most impacted to move forward with their lives,” the plan states. “Our job now is to legalize marijuana and vacate and expunge past marijuana convictions, and ensure that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs.”
There are several unique proposals included in the new plan. To mitigate the influence of large corporate marijuana firms, the senator wants to enact market and franchise caps. Tobacco companies would be prohibited from participating in the legal industry.
“Big Tobacco is already targeting the marijuana industry for its profits,” the plan reads. “As president, Bernie will not allow marijuana to turn into Big Tobacco.”
Additionally, Sanders said the government would provide resources “for people to start cooperatives and collective nonprofits as marijuana businesses that will create jobs and economic growth in local communities.”
Today, the government considers marijuana as dangerous as heroin.
As president I will immediately issue an executive order to declassify marijuana as a controlled substance.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) October 24, 2019
People who’ve been incarcerated for cannabis offenses or who are from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war would be prioritized to benefit from legalization under the senator’s plan. That includes reinvesting cannabis tax revenue into such communities, setting aside $20 billion in grants to provide access to capital to marginalized individuals and stimulating business in areas hit hardest under prohibition.
The plan also calls for the creation of a $10 billion grant program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help marginalized individuals start rural and urban cannabis farms “to ensure people impacted by the war on drugs have access to the entire marijuana industry.”
“These grants will be used for design, technical assistance, purchasing equipment, installing infrastructure and more,” the plan says.
Sanders also wants to establish a national system to certify organic marijuana “to give consumers the information they need to make an informed decision” and to ensure “marijuana farmers are paid a fair price for their products with tools like supply management and reserves and transition toward a parity system to guarantee marijuana farmers a living wage.”
USDA would also be involved in establishing “safety inspection and quality control processes for growers and producers.”
Too many lives were ruined due to the disastrous criminalization of marijuana. Today I am releasing my plan to:
✅ Legalize marijuana with executive action
✅ Expunge past marijuana convictions
✅ Invest in communities most affected by the War on Drugs https://t.co/0xQSHn6F3U
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) October 24, 2019
Another provision concerns expungements, and it is modeled after California’s cannabis program. Sanders will order federal and state law authorities to review data on marijuana convictions and then clear the records for those cases. Individuals would be able to reach out to their state governments to ensure their case is being reviewed, and if after two years there’s no action, the plan would provide an “administrative remedy.”
It’s not clear what powers the senator would have to direct state action with respect to the cannabis conviction review proposal, but it’s possible it would involve withholding certain federal funds to penalize states that don’t comply. Sanders also wants to proactively provide funding for states and cities “to partner with organizations that can help develop and operate the expungement determination process, much like how California worked with Code for America.”
The senator said he would also “revitalize” the clemency process by creating an independent White House clemency board that would presumably help streamline the identification of eligible federal marijuana cases.
Legalize marijuana. Expunge past convictions. End the War on Drugs.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) October 24, 2019
Further, Sanders said he would eliminate drug testing requirements for individuals applying for or receiving public benefits, and he’d ensure that people don’t lose federal housing assistance over cannabis. Under the plan, immigrants would not be denied entry to the use or face deportation because of marijuana.
“The legalization of marijuana is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get federal policy right from the start,” Madisen Saglibene, executive director of Nevada NORML, said in a press release. “The plan released today by Senator Sanders would end prohibition and address the harms that have been inflicted on generations of Americans under its racially disproportional enforcement.”
“His plan would provide real economic prosperity in the emerging legal marketplaces for those who have had to carry the burden of incarceration or a criminal record due a substance that is now legally generating millions in Nevada each year,” she said.
This latest proposal builds on a criminal justice reform plan Sanders released in August. That plan also called for legalization, expungements and reinvesting in communities most hurt by the drug war. And it included the establishment of safe consumption facilities where individuals could use illicit drugs under medical supervision in order to prevent overdoses and encourage people to seek treatment.
But while Sanders is a longstanding champion of marijuana reform and advocate for harm reduction programs, he’s declined to back broader decriminalization of drug possession, a stance being taken by a growing number of his rivals for the Democratic nomination. During an interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast in August, the senator pushed back against arguments in favor of legalizing and regulating drugs beside marijuana.
Sanders also first floated the idea of exercising executive action to legalize cannabis during the Rogan appearance.
He congratulated Canada last week on the first anniversary since the country implemented a legal cannabis market, stating that “Vermont shares a border with Canada, and as far as I can tell, the sky has not fallen and the cities have not plunged into anarchy on the other side.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) also released a drug policy reform plan on Thursday, proposing to decriminalize possession of all drugs and establish safe injection sites and needle exchange programs in his plan. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) are also in favor of the decriminalization policy, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang wants to remove criminal penalties for use and possession of opioids.
Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder.
AOC Blasts Biden’s ‘Reagan-Era’ Marijuana Talking Points
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s suggestion that cannabis could be a gateway drug was “risky” and a “Reagan-era talking point,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said in an interview with Marijuana Moment on Tuesday.
While the congresswoman said she acknowledged that “there are folks, when it comes to the marijuana issue, that have a wide range of opinions within the Democratic party,” she also feels that “we have moved on as a country” on the need to end cannabis prohibition.
“These are Reagan-era talking points that were behind one of the worst and most shameful phases of American policy, which is mass incarceration,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referencing the former Republican president’s anti-drug crusade that largely relied on fear-mongering and campaigns such as “Just Say No.”
“That rhetoric is rhetoric of mass incarceration. The only thing that marijuana, due to the failures of U.S. policy, is a gateway to is our mass incarceration system.”
“That needs to end, marijuana needs to be legalized, drugs need to be decriminalized for consumption,” she said. “These are very simple issues of public health.”
The congresswoman first voiced support for decriminalizing all drugs in a tweet on Sunday; she previously called for decriminalizing the consumption of psychedelics alone in a video taped for activists at a drug policy reform conference earlier this month.
Biden, who played a central role in enacting punitive drug laws during his time in the Senate, has been sharply rebuked by reform advocates after he said on Saturday that “there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not [cannabis] is a gateway drug” and that he wanted to see more debate on the issue “before I legalize it nationally.”
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), both presidential candidates, also seemed to criticize Biden, implicitly contrasting his comments with their respective plans to end federal marijuana prohibition. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang told CNN that he thinks “Joe actually will end up evolving on this issue over time if he sees the same evidence that I have.”
Ocasio-Cortez, in the new interview with Marijuana Moment, said she feels as if “any person who has had, like me, family, friends, neighbors that have been stopped, frisked, incarcerated and trapped in this system would know how risky of a statement that is,” referring to Biden’s “gateway drug” comments.
She also weighed in on the debate over what kind of marijuana reform legislation should be pursued in Congress, as the House Judiciary Committee prepares to mark up legislation from Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) that would federally deschedule cannabis and address social equity issues.
While some have voiced concerns that pursuing a wide-ranging legalization bill—as opposed to something more narrowly tailored and states’ rights-focused—will slow down the reform process given the current makeup of the Senate, the congresswoman said that with “matters of justice, it’s not about slowing it down, it’s about doing it right.”
“The problem is that if we don’t pass a bill with the social elements inside it then we compound on the racial wealth gap, we compound on the same folks who got rich off of private prisons are going to turn around, invest those profits into legal marijuana and we’re going to have the same economic discrimination that we had,” she said.
“If we just pass the financial piece, it’s just going to be another Wall Street market that’s going to exploit people so we can’t go down that road,” she added, referencing a House-passed bill that would protect banks that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C.
Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Filed For 2020 After Democrats Reclaim Legislature
A Virginia lawmaker prefiled a bill on Monday for the 2020 session that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana—a piece of reform legislation that stands a much better chance of passing after voters elected Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature earlier this month.
Sen. Adam Ebbin (D) introduced the proposal, which would make possession of up to one ounce of cannabis punishable by a maximum $50 civil penalty. Currently, simple possession carries up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
Decriminalization was among the campaign promises made by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who also called for the policy change in his State of the State address in January, but reform efforts have stalled to date in the Republican-controlled legislature.
The governor said earlier this month that decriminalization is a 2020priority for his administration, a goal that now appears much more achievable since Democrats have reclaimed control of both the House of Delegates and Senate.
“The new majority creates a real pathway for the passage of decriminalization in the 2020 General Assembly,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “SB2 is a common sense approach to a policy supported by three out of four Virginians.”
Here’s how the bill would amend the state’s law on cannabis possession:
“Any person who violates this section is
guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be confined in jail not more than 30 days and fined not subject to a civil penalty of no more than $500, either or both; any person, upon a second or subsequent conviction of a violation of this section, is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor $50. Any civil penalties collected pursuant to this section shall be deposited into the Drug Offender Assessment and Treatment Fund.”
Additionally, the legislation would make it so that only individuals who’ve committed criminal violations, or juveniles who’ve committed civil violations, would be subject to penalties such as a suspended sentence, substance abuse screening or driver’s license suspension.
“The bill also allows a person to petition for expungement of convictions and deferred disposition dismissals for marijuana possession when all court costs and fines and orders of restitution have been paid,” a summary states.
While it’s yet to be seen whether the new legislature will pursue broader reform such as adult-use legalization or an expansion of the state’s limited medical cannabis program, recent polling indicates that Virginians are ready to move ahead. Sixty-one percent of Virginia residents favor recreational legalization, according to a survey released in September.
Marijuana Legalization Will Get A Floor Vote This Congress, Key Chairman Predicts
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said on Tuesday that he’s optimistic about the prospects for getting his comprehensive marijuana legalization bill out of committee and onto the floor by the end of this Congress.
During a press conference with lawmakers and advocates, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) also told Marijuana Moment that part of the reason he expects floor time is because he’s actively communicating with other committee chairs, requesting that they waive jurisdiction of the reform legislation to expedite its progress.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, introduced by Nadler, would federally deschedule cannabis and provide for expungements and reinvestments in communities most impacted by the war on drugs. The panel confirmed that members will mark up the legislation on Wednesday at 10:00 AM ET.
The chairman—as well as Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and the executive directors of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP)—spoke at the event.
Watch lawmakers discuss the federal marijuana legalization vote below:
While the MORE Act has been referred to seven additional committees, Nadler told Marijuana Moment that his panel is “carrying on conversations” about getting other panels to waive jurisdiction.
“I don’t anticipate that to be a big problem,” he said. “We are looking forward to moving this to the floor at an appropriate time when we’ve done some more educational work and have the votes.”
“For too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in the past,” Lee, who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, said, adding that this bill is “rooted in equality, justice and fairness.”
For too long, our federal cannabis policies have been rooted in the past! Proud to work with @RepJerryNadler on the MORE Act, which decriminalizes marijuana at the federal level, enacts restorative justice, and makes the cannabis industry more diverse and equitable. #WeWantMORE pic.twitter.com/w3narSOOP8
— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) November 19, 2019
Blumenauer said that the country has “seen more progress is the last 40 months than we’ve seen in the last 40 years” when it comes to marijuana policy.
“We shouldn’t settle any longer for incremental change,” he said. “We must commit to the restorative justice that’s in this.”
“This is the Congress that can end the failed prohibition of cannabis.”
Nadler said that he expects the bill to clear his panel with bipartisan support, predicting that more Republican members will sign onto the legislation as it advances.
To that end, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who is so far the lone GOP cosponsor of the MORE Act, told Marijuana Moment that he’s “pleased to see historic steps being taken in the Judiciary Committee on the issue of cannabis.”
“The MORE Act is not perfect, but it advances the discussion on cannabis reform and allows the Congress to take much-needed action on this important issue,” the congressman, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said. “I look forward to participating in the discussion this week.”
Nadler left open the possibility that lawmakers could make compromises on the legislation later down the road, but he added that he doesn’t believe it will have to come to that, and that it would be a mistake to scale down the legislation at this early stage of the process.
“This will remove a stain on people’s record but really a stain on the United States of America,” Cohen said. He also joked that when Blumenauer described the bill as the “best piece of cannabis legislation” he’s seen, another way of putting it is that the MORE Act is the “Acapulco Gold of marijuana legislation,” referencing a variety of cannabis popular in the 1960s.
— NORML (@NORML) November 19, 2019
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of DPA, said that “marijuana prohibition has, for millions of black and brown people in the U.S., been the gateway to arrests, incarceration, loss of livelihoods and lives.”
“Those are concrete, real harms, that affect real people every day,” she said. “Continuing the status quo of prohibition is not just inaction: it means turning your back on those harms, and condemning hundreds of thousands every year to continuing that misery and oppression.”
“What is most important here [is] this will free up law enforcement resources to a great level,” Neill Franklin of LEAP said. “I hope that others realize what this will do for public safety coast-to-coast in this country.”
Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) tweeted support for the MORE Act during the press conference and said that “[a]s more states fully legalize cannabis, it’s time for Congress to decriminalize it.”
As more states fully legalize cannabis, it’s time for Congress to decriminalize it. The MORE Act will:
✅ Deschedule cannabis
✅ Expunge low-level offenses
✅ Create 5% federal tax on cannabis
I’m proud to be a co-sponsor of this bill. It’s time to move forward. https://t.co/85cnQUuwJF
— Rep. Lou Correa (@RepLouCorrea) November 19, 2019
There’s been significant pressure from reform advocates to advance the legislation, especially since the full House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would protect banks servicing marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Several reform groups, including the ACLU, wrote a letter to House leadership ahead of that vote asking for a delay, arguing that Congress must pass comprehensive legalization that addresses social equity concerns before moving ahead with legislation viewed as largely favorable to the industry.
Historic vote planned in @HouseJudiciary. The MORE Act would deschedule marijuana & provide restorative justice to those hurt by the failed War on Drugs.
— Progressive Caucus (@USProgressives) November 19, 2019
Meanwhile, some feel that the House would be better off voting on a more limited, states’ rights-focused reform bill such as the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would simply carve out an exception in federal law allowing states to implement cannabis programs, because they believe it stands a better chance at passing in the GOP-controlled Senate.
While observers generally expect the MORE Act to pass out of committee as well as the House, there are still questions about what kind of amendments members might offer and how that will impact the vote.
#WA voters recognized the harm of the war on drugs in 2012 when they voted to legalize cannabis. Now, I’m proud to support the MORE Act, so we can give back to minority communities adversely impacted by this futile crackdown. https://t.co/UyIdgvUMDB
— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@RepJayapal) November 19, 2019
In any case, Wednesday’s vote will be one of the most highly anticipated congressional developments in the cannabis reform movement, with members not just debating the end of federal prohibition—which happened in a House subcommittee in July—but actually voting on a bill that would accomplish that, and more.
Aaron Houston contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C. This post was updated to include remarks from the press conference.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.