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Where Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Stands On Marijuana

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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.

Where Presidential Candidate Amy Klobuchar Stands On Marijuana

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization In Committee Vote

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A Texas House committee approved a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday that would make simple possession punishable by a fine, with no jail time, and without having to go on an individual’s criminal record.

The legislation passed in a 5-2 vote out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and now heads to a separate panel responsible for placing bills on the calendar for floor debates.

Possession of one ounce or less of cannabis would be punished with a $250 fine for the first two offenses. After that, possession would be considered a class C misdemeanor, which is still a lesser penalty compared to current law. As it stands, possession of two ounces or less is a class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail as well as a permanent criminal record, which carries steep collateral consequences.

Earlier this month, the committee held a hearing on the legislation and heard testimony about the long-term impacts of having a low-level cannabis conviction on a person’s record and how removing criminal penalties for possession can free up law enforcement resources so that officers can tackle more serious crimes.

Advocates are hopeful that the full House will embrace the modest reform measure, even as the legislature contemplates other cannabis policies such as expanding the state’s limited medical marijuana program.

“We are very optimistic about the chances of HB 63 passing on the floor of the Texas House,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Overall, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that we shouldn’t be wasting valuable criminal justice resources arresting and prosecuting people for small amounts of marijuana. Texas is ready.”

While medical cannabis expansion, to say nothing of adult-use legalization, remains a dubious prospect in the conservative stronghold, removing the threat of jail time for possession has gained popularity among Texas Republicans. Delegates for the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform plank last year that endorses marijuana decriminalization, for example.

“We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” the plank states.

What’s more, the policy has even received a tentative green light from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has said he is open to legislation that would reduce penalties for simple possession.

During a gubernatorial debate last year, Abbot said he doesn’t want to see “jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana” and floated the idea of reducing the penalty for marijuana possession from a class B to a class C misdemeanor.

According to Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, the legislation currently has 32 authors or co-authors.

Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee

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A key committee in the Connecticut legislature approved a bill to legalize marijuana on Monday.

The General Law Committee, which is one of two panels that heard testimony about legalization legislation last week, voted 10 to 8 to advance the bill.

Beyond legalizing cannabis for adult use, the legislation also includes a number of social equity provisions aimed at encouraging participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war. A governor-appointed commission would be charged with giving such individuals advance time to apply for a marijuana business license and promote diversity in hiring.

“At the end of the day, if we’re moving, it’s not about revenue. It’s about equity,” Rep. Juan Candelaria (D) said at the meeting. “It’s about ensuring that these communities that have been impacted, that we say we’re not going to stay idle anymore.”

The commission would also be required to study the potential impacts of allowing cannabis microbusinesses and a home cultivation option, which are not currently included in the bill. Delivery would be permitted, however.

While advocates generally support the bill, there are some outstanding concerns about the lack of a home grow option. The lack of specific licenses for delivery services and on-site consumption facilities is another sticking point.

“Marijuana prohibition was borne of misinformation and racism and it continues to be enforced unequally to this day,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said at last week’s hearing.

It’s not yet clear whether the legislature will ultimately pass this proposal or a separate bill in the Senate, but if either does end up on the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont (D), he’s expected to sign. The governor called legalization one of his “priorities” last year and also discussed the issue during a budget speech last month.

The legislature’s Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on legalization legislation on Thursday.

A separate bill to revise the state’s medical cannabis program by adding opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions and eliminating a registration certification fee for patients and caregivers was also approved by the General Law Committee on Monday.

Connecticut Lawmakers Hold Two Simultaneous Hearings On Marijuana Legalization Bills

This story was updated to note the committee’s vote tally.

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Marijuana Legalization Vote Cancelled Due To Lack of Support In New Jersey Senate

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Marijuana reform advocates experienced a setback on Monday after bill to legalize cannabis in New Jersey was pulled from the agenda due to a lack of votes to pass the legislation in the Senate.

The proposal would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess, consume and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers. It included a number of social equity provisions meant to encourage participation in the industry by individuals from communities most harmed by the war on drugs, and it also would’ve created a pathway for expedited expungements for prior cannabis convictions.

Two committees—the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee—approved companion cannabis legalization bills last week.

But while Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leading lawmakers reached a compromise on certain details on how to carry out legalization earlier this month, the legislation faced resistance and was taken off the table hours before scheduled votes in the Senate and Assembly.

“History is rarely made on the first try,” Murphy said in a press conference. “Certainly I’m disappointed but we are not defeated… We all remain committed to passing this bill and making our state a national model for justice and opportunity because ultimately this is the right thing to do for New Jersey, and we know the people of New Jersey are on our side.”

“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) said in a statement. “This fight is not over. We need to learn from this experience and continue to move forward. While this legislation is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage.”

“The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey, one way or another,” he added at a press conference. “Anybody who thinks this is dead, they’re wrong.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) echoed those sentiments.

“Today we may not be able to get a bill over the finish line but I’m proud of the effort we made and the discussions we had. It’s a big and complicated issue,” he said in a press conference. “We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model.”

According to a whip count tracking tool for the legislation that was created by NJ.com, a majority of senators (23) planned to vote “no” as of Monday morning, compared to just eight who said they’d vote in favor of the bill, with nine others undetermined. Other sources indicated that 18 senators planned to vote “yes.”

In the days leading up to the Monday session, the legislation received a number of high-profile endorsements, including from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rev. Al Sharpton and CNN host Van Jones. The governor’s office also released a list of quotes supporting the bill from lawmakers, activists and spiritual leaders.

“With this bill, New Jersey legislators can send a strong message to the country that marijuana legalization and social justice must be inextricably linked,” Booker said last week. “I’m hopeful our state will succeed in setting this example.”

Those endorsements were ultimately not enough to convince a sufficient number of on-the-fence state senators, some of whom raised concerns about the potential public health and safety impacts of legalization.

“This is a tragedy for social and racial justice in New Jersey. This legislation was supported by a broad coalition of civil rights, advocacy and faith organizations across the state and the majority of New Jersey voters,” Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said. “But, we will not give up. We will continue to fight for marijuana legalization legislation centered on racial and social justice. It is only a matter of time before this legislation is enacted and all New Jerseyans can share in the benefits it will create.”

Prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana described the news as a “huge victory for us.”

“They told us legalization was inevitable, and this action proves them wrong, Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, said in a press release.

With the cancellation of the vote, it may be months before lawmakers take up the idea again.

“Voters and lawmakers both agree that the practice of treating marijuana consumers as second-class citizens must end. Unfortunately, legislative intransigence regarding how best to create a regulatory framework has resulted in, at least for now, a continuation of the failed policy of marijuana criminalization in the Garden State,” NORML Political Associate Tyler McFadden said in a press release.

“[I]t should be acknowledged that, to date, no state has taken legislative action to regulate the adult use marijuana market,” she said. “In every jurisdiction where regulations exist, they were enacted by a direct vote of the citizenry. Based on current polling in New Jersey, we have little doubt that, if provided the opportunity, Garden State voters would take similar action.”

A poll last month found that New Jersey adults support legalizing marijuana, 62 percent to 32 percent.

Diversity Provisions Added To Marijuana Banking Bill Up For Congressional Vote This Week

This story was updated to add comment from Sweeney, DPA, NORML and SAM.

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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