Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is making another run for the Democratic presidential nomination, he announced on Tuesday.
From his time as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, to his years in the U.S. Senate, Sanders has established himself as a champion of drug policy reform, particularly when it comes to marijuana. NORML gave the senator an “A+” grade based on his legislative track record.
And it didn’t take long for Sanders to incorporate drug reform into his latest presidential bid. In his announcement video, he reiterated that the government “needs to end the destructive war on drugs.”
Legislation And Policy Actions
Sanders has been behind some of the first and most wide-ranging legislative efforts to fundamentally change federal cannabis laws. He was the first major presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization during his last bid and, in 2015, filed the first-ever Senate bill to end federal cannabis prohibition.
He’s also attached his name to a number of reform bills in Congress, going back to his time in the House, as well as during his Senate tenure. That includes recent pieces of legislation such as the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and punish states with discriminatory enforcement, as well as the the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which would federally deschedule cannabis.
More than 20 years ago, Sanders cosponsored a House bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana. He also signed onto legislation that would reschedule cannabis and protect states with legal medical cannabis. He cosponsored versions of that bill in the 107th, 108th and 109th Congresses.
When Sanders arrived in the Senate, he began supporting efforts to reform federal hemp laws. He cosponsored three versions of a bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) to remove hemp from the definition of marijuana under the CSA, for example. And last Congress, he put his name on legislation to legalize industrial hemp.
The senator also backed bills to shield banks from federal prosecution if they choose to accept marijuana business accounts in legal states.
On four occasions in the House, Sanders voted in favor of amendments to protect legal medical marijuana states from federal intervention. He voted against a resolution in 1998 that was meant to express “the sense of Congress that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medicinal use.”
Quotes And Social Media Posts
Sanders has been outspoken about his support for marijuana reform in speeches, during debates and on social media. His messaging around the issue typically falls into one of three categories:
1. Marijuana is not comparable to other drugs listed in Schedule I of the CSA, and it should be removed from that list, accordingly.
“Right now, marijuana is listed by the federal government as a Schedule I drug—meaning that it is considered to be as dangerous as heroin. That is absurd,” he said during a rally at George Mason University in 2015. “In my view, the time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana.”
He lamented that “marijuana is listed side-by-side with heroin” during a campaign event at the University of Iowa.
“I know that you are an intelligent group of people and, very seriously, I know and I hope very much that you all understand what a killer drug heroin is,” he said. “There are two ways out when you do heroin: Number one, you’re gonna get arrested and go to jail. Number two, you’re gonna die. Stay away from heroin.”
“But in terms of marijuana what we are seeing is a lot of lives have been really hurt, because if you get a criminal record for possession of marijuana it could impact your ability to get a job,” he said. “And that is why I have introduced legislation and will move forward as president to take marijuana out of the Controlled Substances Act.”
And when then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton proposed rescheduling cannabis and placing it in Schedule II, Sanders said he appreciated that she was addressing the issue but that her proposal “ignored the major issue,” which is that it would place “marijuana in the same category as cocaine and continue to make marijuana a federally regulated substance.”
2. Black Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war and are more likely to be arrested for marijuana despite the fact that usage rates are roughly the same among different racial groups.
“We must recognize that blacks are four times more likely than whites to get arrested for marijuana possession, even though the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana,” Sanders said in a press release. “Any serious criminal justice reform must include removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.”
“I am glad to see Baltimore will no longer prosecute marijuana possession and will move to vacate some convictions,” Sanders said after the city’s top prosecutor made that announcement in early 2019. “Thousands and thousands of people across the country have had their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use—and it’s disproportionately affecting people of color. It is time to decriminalize marijuana and end the failed war on drugs.”
“Where it becomes a racial issue, it turns out that whites and blacks utilized marijuana roughly equal,” Sanders said during an interview with rapper Killer Mike in 2015. “Four times as many blacks are arrested for possession as whites. It becomes a racial issue.”
“The reality is that both the African-American community and the white community do marijuana at about equal rates,” he emphasized at a debate in Wisconsin. “The reality is four times as many blacks get arrested for marijuana.”
3. It is an injustice that young people can have their lives upended by a non-violent cannabis conviction while Wall Street bankers avoid prosecution for financial crimes.
“If some kid in Iowa or Vermont today is picked up possessing marijuana, that kid will get a police record that will stay with him for the rest of his life,” Sanders said at a rally in Iowa in 2016. “But the executives on Wall Street who drove this country into the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, whose greed and illegal behavior resulted in millions of Americans losing their jobs, their homes, their life savings, these executives who pay billions of dollars in settlement agreements with the government, not one of them has been prosecuted. Not one of them has a criminal record.”
“It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but oddly enough not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy,” he said during a speech before the National Urban League. “Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”
Before he got behind full marijuana legalization, Sanders’s position on drug policy has varied somewhat.
When he was campaigning to be governor of Vermont in 1972, he seemed to embrace legalizing all drugs in an attempt to pushback against what he described as the “gradual erosion of freedoms and the sense of what freedom really means” under the administration of President Richard Nixon, writing that the government should “abolish all laws dealing with abortion, drugs, sexual behavior.”
As states like Colorado began legalizing cannabis for adult use, Sanders said in interviews that he recognized that the issue was gaining popularity and pledged to study it closely. He voiced support for Vermont’s decriminalization policy and medical marijuana legalization generally.
Sanders also complained about how federal laws impede the effective implementation of state-level marijuana programs, stressing that cannabis businesses struggle to access banking services, for example.
“I think there are things that the federal government can do that would make it easier for states that want to go in that direction to be able to do so,” he said in 2015. “What the federal government can do is say to the state of Colorado that if you choose to vote to legalize marijuana, we will allow you to do that without restrictions.”
He also called for federal decriminalization as a response to the “continuation of millions of people over the decades getting police records because they were caught possessing marijuana.”
Sanders has criticized moves from the Justice Department under President Donald Trump to dismantle guidelines on federal marijuana enforcement priorities.
“No, Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions. Marijuana is not the same as heroin,” he said in a statement last year before Sessions rescinded the Cole memo. “No one who has seriously studied the issue believes that marijuana should be classified as a Schedule I drug beside killer drugs like heroin.”
“Quite the contrary. We should allow states the right to move toward the decriminalization of marijuana, not reverse the progress that has been made in recent years,” he said.
He also congratulated Canada when the country passed a law legalizing cannabis for adult use and said “it is long past time that we in the United States end the federal prohibition on marijuana.”
And he congratulated Seattle when the city’s judges decided to green light expungements for past marijuana possession convictions.
“We must decriminalize marijuana nationally and expunge federal marijuana use and possession crimes,” he wrote.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Sanders said that he smoked marijuana decades ago but that the plant “didn’t do much for me.”
“I smoked marijuana twice and all I did was cough my guts out, so it didn’t work for me,” he said at a rally in Las Vegas. “But I do understand other people have had different experiences.”
That said, the senator has made a point of emphasizing that his efforts to reform marijuana laws is not meant “to encourage anybody to smoke marijuana.”
Marijuana Under A Sanders Presidency
As the first major presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization—and as someone who has introduced and cosponsored some of the most far-reaching cannabis bills in Congress—Sanders has already made marijuana history in his career. He signaled again in his announcement speech that addressing the harms of the drug war would be a priority if he’s elected, and part of that agenda would likely involve seriously considering legislation to end the federal prohibition of marijuana.
While most 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have backed legalization at this point, Sanders’s long-standing record of standing up for drug policy reform gives voters relatively strong assurance that marijuana legalization would be near the top of his priorities as president.
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