Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) says Congress is “making progress” toward ending the drug war and federally legalizing marijuana, and it helps that more states are enacting the reform in the meantime.
At a town hall event focused on Democrats’ large-scale budget plan last week, a voter said he was going to ask Sanders the same question he posed two years ago about when lawmakers are “going to end the racist, idiotic drug war.” The Senate Budget Committee chairman responded that he’s “happy to give you a better answer than I gave it two years ago in the sense that I think we’re making progress.”
“My own view is that the so-called war on drugs has been an abysmal failure. It has destroyed god knows how many lives, disproportionately African American and Latino,” Sanders, a longstanding champion of marijuana reform, said at the Iowa event. “What you are now seeing is a radical change of consciousness with regard to that war. You are seeing state after state after state legalizing marijuana.”
“I would legalize marijuana nationally. I am supportive of that,” he added. “But we are making some progress in state after state.”
Sanders later brought up marijuana separately when he was asked about the prospect of passing legislation to raise the federal minimum wage, especially when certain moderate Democrats in the Senate have signaled they wouldn’t be supportive of the policy change.
The senator said he views the issue similarly to how he looks at cannabis reform.
“The good news is that state after state is in fact passing $15 an hour legislation,” he said. “A number of states have done it. A number of cities have done it. We’re making progress in the same sense that we’re making progress of legalizing marijuana.”
State-level cannabis reform efforts have continued to underscore the increasing bipartisan popularity of legalization. But what remains to be seen is whether there’s enough congressional support to move the policy forward at the federal level.
This session, advocates are focused on a marijuana descheduling bill that’s being led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).
After introducing a discussion draft of the legislation in July, the senators opened a comment period to get public input on its provisions before the bill is finalized. That comment window closed on Wednesday, and much of the feedback focused on issues of social equity, licensing, tax policy and interstate commerce.
There have been some serious questions about whether the senators will be able to muster the 60 votes needed to pass the legislation in their chamber. Even with a slim Democratic majority in the Senate, there are some members of Schumer’s own party who’ve expressed concerns about the comprehensive reform.
President Joe Biden’s position on cannabis presents another complication. Minutes after the senators unveiled the bill, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked at a briefing about the administration’s position on the legislation and said “nothing has changed” with respect to Biden’s opposition to adult-use legalization.
Sanders said last month that Biden could and should use executive authority to end federal marijuana prohibition on his own—but the two of them have “differences” when it comes to drug policy.
As a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 himself, Sanders pledged that he would legalize marijuana across the country on his first day in office if elected. That idea has been questioned by some expects, however, as there are unique challenges associated with a presidential move to unilaterally remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
“Joe Biden and I on marijuana—I think the war on drugs has been just a disaster for this country, for the African-American community,” Sanders said last month. “I think it should end. I think marijuana should be legalized. We do [could] that fairly simply. But yeah, so we have differences.”
After their primary battle and prior to the general election, Biden and Sanders established a criminal justice task force that was charged with making various policy recommendations for the incoming president. But marijuana legalization did not make the cut, despite the fact that many members of the group personally supported the reform.
Stacey Walker, a Linn County, Iowa supervisor who was recruited for the task force, said earlier this year that Biden “was really concerned about how [supporting legalization] could have impacted the outcome of the election” despite the fact that a supermajority of voters support the reform.
In any case, advocates have sharply criticized the administration for failing to take steps to enact even the more modest reforms Biden did promise, such as decriminalizing possession and expunging past records, and it seems increasingly likely that it will be incumbent upon Congress to fulfill those goals.