Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced that he’s making another run for the Democratic presidential nomination on February 19, 2019 and he suspended his campaign on April 8, 2020.
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.
This piece was last updated on April 8, 2020 to include the candidate’s statements and policy actions on marijuana since joining the race.
Legislation And Policy Actions
Sanders has been behind some of the earliest 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.
The time is long overdue for us to take marijuana off the federal government’s list of outlawed drugs.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) October 29, 2015
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 Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which would federally deschedule cannabis.
Now is the time to remove the ridiculous federal prohibition on marijuana. I'm proud to co-sponsor the Marijuana Justice Act. pic.twitter.com/iEAfmWdE3w
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) April 20, 2018
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.
In November 2019, Sanders cosponsored a bill that would effectively legalize medical cannabis for military veterans.
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.”
Also during his time in the House, Sanders was critical of the now-notorious 1994 Crime Bill, arguing that it was “not a crime prevention bill” but “a punishment bill, a retribution bill, a vengeance bill.” However, he ultimately voted for it, and said he did so because it included provisions he did support such as the Violence Against Women Act.
In a 2015 Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, Sanders recalled that during his time as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, the local police “had more important things to do” than arrest people for using cannabis.
On The Campaign Trail
Sanders released a marijuana reform plan in October that outlines steps he would take to end federal cannabis prohibition and ensure that the industry is equitable if he is elected president.
The senator said he would deschedule cannabis through executive order within 100 days of his administration, support efforts in Congress to make that policy permanent and move to expunge the records of those with prior convictions.
But that timeline got pushed up significantly in February 2020 when Sanders said he would use executive action to federally legalize marijuana in all 50 states on the first day of his presidency.
Top campaign aides reportedly included marijuana legalization in a list of proposed executive orders that Sanders could issue in the early days of his presidency, though Marijuana Moment talked to a number of experts who raised serious questions about whether a president can unilaterally legalize cannabis as he’s proposed.
When pressed on the feasibility of unilateral legalization action, a spokesperson for Sanders said that as president he would “pursue every avenue possible” to achieve the reform.
At a Chicago rally, the senator invited a crowd of about 15,000 supporters to witness him signing an executive order to legalize cannabis.
At a Democratic debate in February, Sanders was pressed on his legalization plan.
“We have a criminal justice system today that is not only broken, it is racist. We’ve got more people in jail than in any other country on earth, including China. One of the reasons for that is a horrific war on drugs,” he said. “I do believe that on day one, we will change the federal Controlled Substances Act which, if you can believe it, now equates heroin with marijuana. That’s insane.”
He also said at the debate that minorities should be empowered to participate in the cannabis industry—a point that some pushed back on but was later defended by the Minority Cannabis Business Alliance.
His initial plan also contained several other unique proposals, including a ban on participation in the industry by tobacco companies, encouraging cannabis firms to be incorporated as cooperatives or nonprofits and enacting market and franchise caps.
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
In an interview on Showtime’s Desus & Mero, Sanders emphasized the need to prevent large corporations from taking over the industry.
“[A]s we move toward the legalization of marijuana, I don’t want large corporations profiting,” he said. “I want the people who’ve been hurt the most to be able to benefit. The folks who should be involved in the legal marijuana business will be people of color.”
The cannabis industry pledges build on an earlier criminal justice plan Sanders released, which also called for marijuana legalization as well as the implementation of safe consumption sites for other currently illegal drugs.
“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 says. “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.”
Prior to the South Carolina primary, his campaign released an ad touting Sanders’s support for cannabis legalization.
During a campaign event in New Hampshire in February 2020, Sanders reiterated his pledge to legalize marijuana nationwide through executive action, and he also admitted he wasn’t as familiar with the consequences of the drug war prior to running for president.
Sanders discussed his promise for immediate legalization at several other events that month.
We're going to end the so-called "war on drugs"
We're going legalize marijuana
We're going to expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession
— People for Bernie (@People4Bernie) February 11, 2020
Watch Sanders talk about the proposal below, around 29:40:
At a Democratic presidential debate just before the New Hampshire primary, Sanders said he wants to “end the war on drugs, which has disproportionately impacted African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.”
He added that private prisons should be abolished, characterizing them as a part of a “racist system, from top to bottom.”
His campaign site states that Sanders will “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.”
It also says he will “[e]nd, once and for all, the destructive “war on drugs,” including legalizing marijuana.”
“We must finally put an end to the disastrous, so-called ‘War on Drugs,’” he said in February 2020. “This includes legalizing marijuana, releasing those imprisoned because of it, expunging their records, and investing in the communities devastated by this decades-long assault.”
We must finally put an end to the disastrous, so-called "War on Drugs."
This includes legalizing marijuana, releasing those imprisoned because of it, expunging their records, and investing in the communities devastated by this decades-long assault.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) February 2, 2020
Following the release of Sanders’s cannabis reform plan, one of his top advisors said that the senator isn’t ruling out covering medical marijuana through his Medicare for All proposal.
Sanders released a plan for military veterans on Veterans Day that called for doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to be able to recommend medical cannabis to their patients and also help those discharged for marijuana offenses apply for a review of their case.
Sanders was among several lawmakers who said in September that comprehensive marijuana reform that addresses social equity should be prioritized before Congress passes a cannabis banking bill that is viewed as largely friendly to the industry.
The candidate has repeatedly stressed that prohibition has disproportionately impacted communities of color and talked about the need for social equity in the legal market.
“We cannot let corporate America take over hemp and marijuana,” he said in Iowa in June. “The people who suffered, the people who went to jail, the people who were arrested deserve to be able to make some money from what is now legal.”
“The American people are united on issue after issue,” he tweeted in November, linking to a Marijuana Moment article on a poll showing growing support for legalization. “We must legalize marijuana now—and expunge all past marijuana convictions as a matter of racial and economic justice.”
The American people are united on issue after issue. We must legalize marijuana now—and expunge all past marijuana convictions as a matter of racial and economic justice. https://t.co/NQjp7WOko3
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) November 17, 2019
“Donald Trump has no problem pardoning white collar criminals. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown Americans are sitting in jail because of marijuana convictions or because they can’t afford bail,” Sanders said in February 2020. “That injustice is what we’re going to end.”
Donald Trump has no problem pardoning white collar criminals.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown Americans are sitting in jail because of marijuana convictions or because they can't afford bail.
That injustice is what we're going to end.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 19, 2020
The senator urged employees at one of Illinois’s largest cannabis companies to vote in favor of unionization in January.
Workers in the cannabis industry deserve respect and fair wages. I encourage Cresco Labs workers in Joliet to vote yes for the union on Tuesday. As president, I will lead the fight to double union membership in this country. https://t.co/NwOeNNh9aZ
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 13, 2020
Sanders, rapper Killer Mike and actor Danny Glover had an extensive discussion about the harms of marijuana criminalization in September.
“When marijuana is legal all over America we are not going to allow a handful of corporations to control that industry, we are gonna do everything we can to make sure they are the people who have suffered the most benefit and profit from the legalization of marijuana,” Sanders said at a rally in October.
"When marijuana is legal all over America we are not going to allow a handful of corporations to control that industry, we are gonna do everything we can make sure they are the people who have suffered the most benefit and profit from the legalization of marijuana" @BernieSanders pic.twitter.com/4vxK9qZnkU
— People for Bernie (@People4Bernie) October 27, 2019
As former Vice President Joe Biden was facing criticism for suggesting cannabis may be a gateway drug, Sanders emphasized that he wants to “ make marijuana legal in every state in the country.”
During a campaign event in South Carolina, Sanders asked people to raise their hands if they know someone who’s been arrested for cannabis possession. When an abundance of hands shot up, he said that’s “why all over this country states are doing the right thing and either decriminalizing or legalizing the possession of marijuana.”
“Philadelphia police stopped 25,000 cars because they ‘smelled marijuana.’ 84% were African American drivers. They found marijuana only 12% of the time,” Sanders tweeted. “Our job must be to end the War on Drugs—and get racial bias out of law enforcement at the same time.”
Philadelphia police stopped 25,000 cars because they "smelled marijuana."
84% were African American drivers. They found marijuana only 12% of the time.
Our job must be to end the War on Drugs—and get racial bias out of law enforcement at the same time. https://t.co/6luwr6TayC
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) November 7, 2019
“I’m not telling you to do marijuana—in fact I’m telling you not to do it—but people are going to do it whether I want it or not,” he said in September. “I don’t want your lives destroyed if you choose to do it.”
Sen. @BernieSanders goes into legalizing marijuana, and adds (in nod to school age)
"I'm not telling you to do marijuana – in fact I'm telling you not to do it – but people are going to do it whether I want it or not. I don't want your lives destroyed if you choose to do it."
— Nick Coltrain (@NColtrain) September 23, 2019
During an event in California, Sanders reiterated his pledge to nationally legalize marijuana on his first day in office.
Bernie Sanders was the first Senator to introduce a bill to legalize marijuana. He'll be the president who legalizes it and expunges the records of those arrested. pic.twitter.com/Lmz4EKWMsn
— People for Bernie (@People4Bernie) March 2, 2020
On that first day, “we begin the process of ending the war on drugs,” he said at another event.
— Renée Wunderlich (@ReneeWYFFNews4) February 28, 2020
In an op-ed for Marijuana Moment, a Nevada Campaign Co-Chair for Bernie 2020 wrote that the candidate’s cannabis reform plan “ goes beyond legalizing marijuana to address the shortcomings of our historically racist criminal justice system.”
In a lighter moment on the campaign trail, the candidate did an interview with a Sanders impersonator who asked the real Sanders about whether his Medicare for All plan could be expanded to provide psilocybin mushrooms for all for want it.
The senator said that under the war on drugs, “men on street corners dealing pot were thrown in jail” and that wants “to see a war on the corporate greed that is killing Americans. I want to see top executives held personally liable for actions that led to the deaths of more than 42,000 people.”
Under the so-called "War on Drugs," men on street corners dealing pot were thrown in jail. I want to see a war on the corporate greed that is killing Americans. I want to see top executives held personally liable for actions that led to the deaths of more than 42,000 people.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 27, 2019
“We are not only going to legalize marijuana; we are going to expunge past convictions for marijuana possession,” Sanders said in December, thanking State’s Attorney for Cook County, Illinois Kim Foxx for calling for expungements.
We are not only going to legalize marijuana; we are going to expunge past convictions for marijuana possession. Thank you to @KimFoxxforSA for leading the way on this important issue. https://t.co/p3bWRSA8CV
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 12, 2019
“The War on Drugs has been a disaster,” he said. “We need to legalize marijuana nationwide, invest in the communities that have been destroyed by its criminalization, and expunge past marijuana-related convictions.”
The War on Drugs has been a disaster. We need to legalize marijuana nationwide, invest in the communities that have been destroyed by its criminalization, and expunge past marijuana-related convictions.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 23, 2019
“The criminalization of marijuana has been a disaster. We need to legalize it,” he said in December. “We need to expunge past convictions.And we need to invest in communities destroyed by the war on drugs.”
The criminalization of marijuana has been a disaster.
We need to legalize it.
We need to expunge past convictions.
And we need to invest in communities destroyed by the war on drugs.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 17, 2020
“Marijuana must be legalized,” he said. “All our people imprisoned because of it must be returned home to their families and their records expunged.”
Marijuana must be legalized. All our people imprisoned because of it must be returned home to their families and their records expunged.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 18, 2020
In the midst of an outbreak of vaping-related lung injuries, Sanders initially called for the vaping industry to be “shut down”—but his campaign quickly reversed that position.
Throughout his campaign, Sanders has highlighted his early leadership on the cannabis legalization front.
“The time is right to end the so-called war on drugs,” he said in June. “Well, four years ago [when he called for legalization], that seemed like a radical idea. Not so radical today. State after state after state is either decriminalizing or legalization the possession of marijuana.”
He made a similar point in July while discussing Nevada’s decision to legalize, stating that in Nevada, the policy is “not such a radical idea today.”
In January, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), visited a Las Vegas dispensary on behalf of Sanders, alongside state campaign staffers for the candidate, and discussed regulating cannabis and promoting social equity in the industry.
It didn’t take long for Sanders to incorporate drug reform into his 2020 presidential bid. In his announcement video, he reiterated that the government “needs to end the destructive war on drugs.”
“I am running for President because we need to invest in jobs and education for our kids, not more jails and incarceration. We need to end the destructive war on drugs private prisons, and cash bail, and bring about major police department reform.” @BernieSanders #Bernie2020 pic.twitter.com/9Gk96hS3dt
— People for Bernie (@People4Bernie) February 19, 2019
While the candidate has been a leader on the cannabis front and has often vaguely called for ending the war on drugs, he’s yet to specifically embrace a broader drug decriminalization position—a policy supported by contenders such as South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI).
He said on the Joe Rogan podcast that he’s not in favor of legalizing drugs beyond marijuana, and said later that same month that he’s “not there yet” on removing criminal penalties for possession of other drugs.
Sanders has made a habit of congratulating cities, states and countries for advancing marijuana reform.
“Congratulations to Illinois for legalizing marijuana and expunging 770,000 marijuana-related cases. It is time to legalize marijuana nationwide,” he said after a cannabis legalization bill was signed in June.
Congratulations to Illinois for legalizing marijuana and expunging 770,000 marijuana-related cases. It is time to legalize marijuana nationwide. pic.twitter.com/WX1Ic2iy8P
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 28, 2019
“Thank you Illinois for doing the right thing by expunging marijuana convictions. Tens of thousands of Americans every year get criminal records for possessing marijuana,” he also said. “Meanwhile ZERO major Wall Street executives went to jail for destroying our economy in 2008 as a result of their greed, recklessness and illegal behavior.”
“When we are in the White House we are going to expunge criminal records for marijuana possession and decriminalize it nationwide,” he said.
After Hawaii decriminalized low-level marijuana possession, Sanders said, “If someone had said ten years ago that more than half the states in the country will decriminalize marijuana, people would have called them crazy. A movement for criminal justice reform made it possible.”
“Congratulations Hawaii on becoming the 26th state to end the failed criminalization of marijuana,” he wrote.
Sanders responded to the passage of a bill that expanded New York’s marijuana decriminalization law by stating, “Good. Now let’s do every other state and territory in the country.”
Good. Now let's do every other state and territory in the country. https://t.co/4zuFMck4pV
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 29, 2019
He also thanked Colorado for its leadership on the cannabis reform front, adding “that is what we have got to do nationally. And what we also have to do is expunge the records of those people arrested for possession.”
Sanders in Denver: “Thank you Colorado for leading the way to the legalization of marijuana. And that is what we have got to do nationally. And what we also have to do is expunge the records of those people arrested for possession.” pic.twitter.com/HZJool47Zf
— Gary Grumbach (@GaryGrumbach) September 10, 2019
Sanders congratulated Canada on the one year anniversary of the country’s implementation of a legal marijuana program, writing “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.”
Congratulations to our neighbors to the north on completing their first year of marijuana legalization! 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. https://t.co/O5qnBHrwCZ
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) October 17, 2019
Sanders and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), another 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, joked about support for medical cannabis during a debate that followed a heart attack the Vermont senator experienced.
“Sanders is in favor of medical marijuana,” Booker said, to which Sanders replied, “I do. I’m not on it tonight.”
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
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.”
No rational person really believes marijuana should be a Schedule 1 drug next to killer drugs like heroin. And yet that’s how it’s treated.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) February 24, 2017
No one seriously believes that marijuana deserves to be classified beside heroin. It should not be a Schedule 1 drug.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) September 8, 2016
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.”
Keeping marijuana in the same category as heroin is absurd. The time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) August 11, 2016
People can argue about the pluses and minuses of marijuana, but everyone knows it's not a killer drug like heroin. https://t.co/jOftq1pnL9
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 11, 2016
It is time to lift the federal ban on marijuana. No one sincerely believes that marijuana deserves to be classified beside heroin.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) May 7, 2016
Right now, under the Federal Controlled Substance Act, marijuana is a schedule one drug alongside heroin. That's pretty crazy.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) April 11, 2016
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.”
Classifying marijuana in the same category as cocaine ignores the major issue.https://t.co/mgmHtbXhtz
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) November 8, 2015
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.”
African Americans are much more likely to be arrested for using marijuana than will whites. That is unacceptable.https://t.co/kONVgRRBwO
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) November 2, 2015
“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.”
Although use is about the same, a black person is almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) October 30, 2015
Even though the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana, a black person is almost 4x more likely to be arrested for possession.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 17, 2016
“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.”
For decades, we have been engaged in a failed ‘War on Drugs’ with racially-biased mandatory minimums that punish people of color unfairly.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) February 16, 2016
We must end the "war on drugs," which has destroyed lives and disproportionately impacted people of color.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) December 11, 2016
“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.”
I find it strange that the kid who smokes marijuana gets arrested but the crooks on Wall Street get off scot free.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) August 3, 2015
It is not acceptable that so many young people have criminal records for smoking marijuana, while the CEOs of banks do not.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 7, 2016
“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.”
It is not acceptable that many youth have criminal records for smoking marijuana, while the CEOs of banks do not pic.twitter.com/LfO28knkTm
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) September 12, 2015
How many people at Wells Fargo are going to jail? Zero. But if you smoke marijuana in this country, you get a criminal record.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) September 20, 2016
It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana… pic.twitter.com/bltCSDhyXx
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) July 28, 2015
Before he got behind full marijuana legalization, Sanders’s position on drug policy has varied somewhat.
During a U.S. Senate run in 1971 as a candidate for Vermont’s Liberty Union Party, Sanders said that if he was elected, “All laws relating to prohibition of abortion, birth control, homosexual relations, and the use of drugs would be done away with,” The Washington Free Beacon reported.
“In a free society, individuals and not government have the right to decide what is best for their own lives, as long as their actions do not harm others,” he said during the same campaign.
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.”
During the gubernatorial run, Sanders was quoted praising “the British system of hard drug treatment,” through which the government distributed heroin to people with a history of severe opioid addiction.
“I’m not saying drug use isn’t a definite problem, but making drugs illegal isn’t helping solve anything,” he said in 1971. “If heroin were legal, at least we’d know the dimensions of the problem, and be able to deal with it rationally.”
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.”
Millions of Americans have police records as a result of marijuana possession, which should be decriminalized.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) June 26, 2016
Sanders has criticized moves from the Justice Department under President Donald Trump to dismantle guidelines on federal marijuana enforcement priorities.
No, Attorney General Sessions. Marijuana is not the same as heroin. No one who has seriously studied the issue believes that. Quite the contrary. We should allow states the right to move toward the decriminalization of marijuana, not reverse the progress that has been made.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 4, 2018
“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.”
Instead of Attorney General Sessions intensifying the failed war on drugs, states should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana. https://t.co/EpXfq5HxAT
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 6, 2018
“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.
In 2018, Sanders said that “prohibition against alcohol did not work in the 1920s, and prohibition against marijuana and other drugs is not working today,” adding that the war on drugs “has to be rethought in a very, very fundamental way.”
He made a similar argument in a book he released in 2018.
“The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s was a failed policy,” Sanders wrote. “The prohibition of marijuana has also failed.”
Sanders appeared in a livestream video with Booker in April 2018 to announce his support for the Marijuana Justice Act.
We are spending $80 billion locking people up. Think about what it would mean if we invested that money in our people instead of more jails. https://t.co/Rd8DgfudcC
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) April 19, 2018
“We are spending $80 billion locking people up,” Sanders said. “Think about what it would mean if we invested that money in our people instead of more jails.”
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.
Congratulations to Seattle for clearing past misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession that were prosecuted before marijuana was legalized. We must decriminalize marijuana nationally and expunge federal marijuana use and possession crimes. https://t.co/397PS51ios
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) September 25, 2018
“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.”
“My recollection is I nearly coughed my brains out, so it’s not my cup of tea,” he said in a radio interview.
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.
On nearly every "radical" idea the American people are with us:
72% want to expand Social Security.
70% want Medicare for All.
65% want a jobs guarantee.
64% want to legalize marijuana.
60% want tuition-free public colleges.
58% want $15 min wage.
57% want to break up big banks.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) January 15, 2019
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.