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.
Trump, Asked About Harris’s Marijuana Record, Says ‘She Lied’
President Trump weighed in on Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-CA) prior comments on marijuana shortly after she was announced as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate on Tuesday.
While the president declined to explicitly discuss the senator’s cannabis policy positions after being pressed by New York Post reporter Steve Nelson, he said “she lied” and “said things that were untrue” when presented with details about an interview she gave last year in which she discussed smoking marijuana in college.
Harris, a former California prosecutor who has been widely criticized by advocates over he role in convicting people over marijuana and past dismissive comments about reform efforts, told The Breakfast Club that during her college days, she consumed cannabis and listened to rappers Tupac and Snoop Dogg. But as some quickly pointed out, the timeline didn’t match, as those artists hadn’t yet released their debut albums while she was in school.
President Trump, in his first remarks on Kamala Harris as Joe Biden's VP pick, tells me about her past remarks on marijuana:
'Well, she lied. I mean, she said things that were untrue. She is a person that's told many, many stories that weren't true.'https://t.co/VhKjB9G4yM
— Steven Nelson (@stevennelson10) August 11, 2020
Harris later conceded that she “definitely was not clear about what I was listening to” while consuming cannabis.
Nelson asked the president at a White House press briefing if he felt Harris’s “past on marijuana” is “a liability.”
“Well, she lied. I mean, she said things that were untrue. She is a person that’s told many, many stories that weren’t true,” Trump said before pivoting to criticism about her position on topics like taxes, fracking, military funding and health care.
The reporter followed up to ask whether “supporters of marijuana legalization should vote for you rather than her because she convicted so many people in the past.”
“I can’t tell you what she’s voting for. I don’t think she knows what. I think Joe knows even less than she does,” the president said without directly addressing the question.
It’s somewhat rare for Trump to comment on marijuana issues, but it’s notable that when presented with the opportunity to seize on Harris’s criminal justice record, he declined. It’s especially interesting given that his reelection campaign has been attacking Biden as an “architect” of the drug war who authored punitive laws during his time in the Senate and framing the incumbent president as the criminal justice reform candidate.
A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, which makes it all the more curious that neither Trump nor Biden have sought to embrace the issue. Harris, for her part, is now the lead sponsor of a bill to federally legalize cannabis.
In any case, Nelson, the New York Post reporter, has made a habit of pressing Trump on cannabis policy. Last year, he cited studies about reduced opioid overdoses in states with legalization on the books and the president replied that “right now we are allowing states to make that decision” with regard to cannabis policy.
And when the reporter previously asked about Sen. Cory Gardner’s (R-CO) legislation to allow states to set their own marijuana policies, the president voiced tentative support, saying “I really do” favor the proposal.
“I know exactly what he’s doing. We’re looking at it,” he said at the time. “But I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”
Both Trump and Biden are in favor of medical cannabis. And Biden has put forward plans to decriminalize marijuana possession, modestly reschedule the plant and facilitate expungements for prior cannabis convictions.
It remains to be seen whether Harris will push the former vice president to adopt a pro-legalization stance.
Where Vice Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris Stands On Marijuana
Joe Biden has selected Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his vice presidential running mate, the campaign announced on Tuesday.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s choice to join him on the ticket has evolved significantly on marijuana policy over her career. Though she coauthored an official voter guide argument opposing a California cannabis legalization measure as a prosecutor in 2010 and laughed in the face of a reporter who asked her about the issue in 2014, she went on to sponsor legislation to federally deschedule marijuana in 2019.
It remains to be seen whether she will push Biden in the same direction, as the former vice president has maintained opposition to ending marijuana prohibition despite supermajority support among Democrats.
While Harris, a former attorney general of California, made marijuana reform a major component of her criminal justice platform when she unsuccessfully ran in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, she’s been less vocal about the issue since dropping out in December 2019.
Convincing Biden to come around seems like a steep task in any case. Some advocates suspect that the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee voted against an amendment to add legalization as a 2020 party plank specifically because it’s at odds with the presumptive nominee’s agenda. Biden has drawn the line at decriminalizing marijuana possession, expunging past convictions, modest federal rescheduling, medical cannabis legalization and letting states set their own policies.
But it remains the case that Harris is the chief Senate sponsor of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act—a comprehensive piece of legalization legislation that includes various social equity and restorative justice provisions. Advocates will be watching to see if she continues to advocate for the reform move as she’s on-boarded to the Biden campaign.
The senator indicated in July that she doesn’t plan to push the presumptive presidential nominee on the issue.
Here’s a deeper look at where Harris stands on marijuana:
Legislation And Policy Actions
As noted, Harris’s most notable contribution with respect to cannabis reform legislation is her sponsorship of the MORE Act.
“Times have changed—marijuana should not be a crime,” she said when introducing the bill. “We need to start regulating marijuana, and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives.
The senator first came out in support of legalization in 2018, adding her name to a different far-reaching bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). The legislation, the Marijuana Justice Act, would remove cannabis from the list of federally banned substances and also penalize states where marijuana laws are enforced disproportionately against people of color. She also cosponsored the 2019 version of the bill.
The fact is, marijuana laws are not applied and enforced in the same way for all people. That’s why I've signed onto @CoryBooker’s Marijuana Justice Act to make marijuana legal at the federal level. It’s the smart thing to do. pic.twitter.com/JD5qqm0bfU
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) May 10, 2018
“Right now in this country people are being arrested, being prosecuted, and end up spending time in jail or prison all because of their use of a drug that otherwise should be considered legal,” she said in a press release. “Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I know this as a former prosecutor and I know it as a senator.”
The senator sponsored bills aimed at repairing land in California that’s been impacted by illicit cannabis grows and another piece of legislation that would protect people with drug convictions from losing public housing.
Harris also signed a letter alongside Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) that called on the Justice Department to stop blocking federal research into medical cannabis. In a separate sign-on letter, she joined her colleagues in requesting that lawmakers include protections for legal cannabis states in a spending bill.
It is also worth noting that Harris touted her office’s drug enforcement actions on her website while running for reelection as San Francisco district attorney. One page said she “closed legal loopholes that were allowing drug dealers to escape prosecution,” and another bragged she “increased convictions of drug dealers from 56% in 2003 to 74% in 2006.”
Most Recent Comments And Actions Post-Presidential Campaign
During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in June, Harris discussed how a black man incarcerated over a marijuana offense died after contracting coronavirus. She stated that the case illustrated how “we have two systems of justice in America” based on race.
She and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) made a similar point in a letter to Attorney General William Barr that month.
Harris and two other senators wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in June, criticizing Republicans in the chamber for putting forth a policing reform bill that they argue is inadequate, in part because it does not ban no-knock raids in drug cases as House Democrats did in that chamber’s legislation.
The senator and 43 other members of Congress urged the Justice Department to investigate the death of 26-year-old black woman Breonna Taylor in a botched drug raid.
In April, she signed onto a letter to Senate leadership, imploring them to include language in coronavirus relief legislation that would allow marijuana businesses to access federal relief dollars just as companies in other industries can.
Marijuana small businesses employ more than 240,000 workers and should be allowed to access coronavirus relief funds too. My colleagues and I are pushing to ensure they’re not left out of Congress’s next relief package.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) April 24, 2020
“Marijuana small businesses employ more than 240,000 workers and should be allowed to access coronavirus relief funds too,” she tweeted. “My colleagues and I are pushing to ensure they’re not left out of Congress’s next relief package.”
Also that month, Harris and 10 other senators sent a letter to leadership in a key committee asking that they add a provision allowing cannabis businesses to access federal loan services in spending legislation.
When the governor of Illinois issued pardons for more than 11,000 people with cannabis convictions the day before legal sales started, the senator said she applauded the decision.
I applaud Illinois’ leadership on this issue. Expunging non-violent marijuana-related offenses is the right thing to do.
Now let’s legalize marijuana at the federal level.https://t.co/7M4of9Aikg
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 4, 2020
“Expunging non-violent marijuana-related offenses is the right thing to do,” she said. “Now let’s legalize marijuana at the federal level.”
Harris joined a group of senators in December 2019 in pressing top federal drug and health agencies to provide an update on the status of efforts to increase the number of authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.
Also that month, she and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers sent a letter to the Justice Department, requesting a policy change allowing researchers to access marijuana from state-legal dispensaries to improve studies on the plant’s benefits and risks.
On the unofficial marijuana holiday 4/20, Harris tweeted that the Senate “must pass my Marijuana Opportunity Act to legalize marijuana at the federal level and expunge non-violent marijuana-related offenses from the records of the millions who’ve been arrested or incarcerated. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.”
The Senate must pass my Marijuana Opportunity Act to legalize marijuana at the federal level and expunge non-violent marijuana-related offenses from the records of the millions who’ve been arrested or incarcerated. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 20, 2020
Using loaded war on drugs rhetoric, she called President Trump a “drug pusher” for promoting the use of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19.
On The Campaign Trail
During her presidential run, Harris released a criminal justice plan that says “it is past time to end the failed war on drugs, and it begins with legalizing marijuana.”
It’s time to end mass incarceration.
This includes legalizing marijuana, sentencing reforms, and abolishing private prisons. With the addition of job training and education, these actions will reduce crime and help build healthy communities.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) September 9, 2019
“It’s time to end mass incarceration,” she tweeted the same day. “This includes legalizing marijuana, sentencing reforms, and abolishing private prisons. With the addition of job training and education, these actions will reduce crime and help build healthy communities.”
After House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) announced a markup of the MORE Act in November, Harris wrote that the “War on Drugs was an abject failure” and that it’s “time to legalize marijuana and bring justice to people of color harmed by failed drug policies.”
The War on Drugs was an abject failure. It's time to legalize marijuana and bring justice to people of color harmed by failed drug policies.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) November 18, 2019
“Grateful for [Nadler’s] partnership on this issue,” she said. “I look forward to getting our bill one step closer to becoming law.”
After the committee approved the legislation, Harris wrote, “Not only do we need to legalize marijuana at the federal level, but we have to do it right and bring justice to communities of color” and said the MORE Act would accomplish that.
Not only do we need to legalize marijuana at the federal level, but we have to do it right and bring justice to communities of color.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) November 20, 2019
“Last week, my bill to legalize marijuana passed through House committee with bipartisan support,” she said. “I’ll say it again: we can’t legalize marijuana without addressing the injustices to people of color caused by the War on Drugs. My bill would do just that.”
Last week, my bill to legalize marijuana passed through House committee with bipartisan support.
I’ll say it again: we can't legalize marijuana without addressing the injustices to people of color caused by the War on Drugs. My bill would do just that.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) November 26, 2019
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), another presidential candidate, criticized Harris’s prosecutorial record during a Democratic debate in August. In a follow-up interview, the senator evaded a question about the exchange, dismissing the critique by stating that “I’m obviously a top tier candidate and so I did expect that I would be on the stage and take hits tonight because there are a lot of people that are trying to make the stage for the next debate.”
The Bay Area News Group analyzed the marijuana prosecution record of Harris and said the findings demonstrate that her history “is more nuanced than those debate-stage confrontations indicate.”
Days after former Vice President Joe Biden, another presidential candidate, said he doesn’t support adult-use legalization because marijuana could be a gateway to more dangerous drugs, Harris tweeted “marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized.”
Let's be clear: marijuana isn't a gateway drug and should be legalized. Glad to see my bill with Rep. Nadler take the next step in the House this week. https://t.co/d6BcMFlpYT
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 18, 2019
The candidate said that cannabis legalization is an example of an issue she’s changed her mind on over time during an interview with NowThis.
‘We all will rise or fall together.’ — Sen. @KamalaHarris talks her big middle-class tax cut, her evolving cannabis stance, and the ‘Star Wars’ actor that left her starstruck
Watch Harris answer all of our '20 Questions for 2020.' pic.twitter.com/C7gFgTh7Q1
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) July 9, 2019
“The whole war on drugs was a complete failure,” she said during an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “That approach is the gateway to America’s problem with mass incarceration.” She didn’t directly answer a question about what made her change her mind about cannabis reform from prior opposition to legalization, however.
“The criminalization of marijuana has been such a big part of what has fueled America’s system of mass incarceration,” she said.
‘The criminalization of marijuana has been such a big part of what has fueled America's system of mass incarceration’ — @KamalaHarris explains why she supports legalizing cannabis pic.twitter.com/kI8kuM0ld2
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) November 18, 2019
“There are thousands of people labeled felons for life for selling marijuana, while people out there are making a fortune from the marijuana industry,” the senator said. “This is an injustice, and as president, I’ll fix it.”
Prior to a House vote on legislation to protect banks that service cannabis businesses, Harris joined Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and fellow presidential contenders Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in expressing concern about approving cannabis bills that would largely benefit the industry without first passing comprehensive legalization legislation.
I agree. We shouldn’t do this without addressing the reality that people of color are being shut out of the legal marijuana industry.
That means not only legalizing marijuana but also expunging criminal records and providing a path for people of color to enter the industry. https://t.co/M1Ri1iDKra
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) September 21, 2019
“We shouldn’t do this without addressing the reality that people of color are being shut out of the legal marijuana industry,” she said of the banking bill. “That means not only legalizing marijuana but also expunging criminal records and providing a path for people of color to enter the industry.”
Following the vote in favor of the legislation, Harris tweeted that the reform is “important, but it’s not enough” and that we “need to legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge criminal records, and create paths for people of color to enter the legal marijuana industry.”
Last week, the House passed a bill to give marijuana businesses access to banking. That’s important, but it's not enough.
We need to legalize marijuana at the federal level, expunge criminal records, and create paths for people of color to enter the legal marijuana industry.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) September 29, 2019
“We must ensure that as marijuana becomes a bigger business, we are committing ourselves to rebuilding communities that have been disproportionately targeted by failed drug policies and creating a diverse industry going forward,” she wrote in an op-ed for CNN. “If we fail to address a system that has historically been infected by racial bias, communities of color will continue to shoulder the devastating impacts of the past.”
“Times have changed. We must get smart on marijuana reform and give everyone the opportunity to reap the benefits that come from the legal marijuana industry,” she said.
After Illinois’s governor signed a marijuana legalization bill in June, Harris said she’s thankful that “states like Illinois are stepping up to correct the mistakes of our past” and that it’s “time to do the same at the federal level.”
Thankful states like Illinois are stepping up to correct the mistakes of our past. It’s time to do the same at the federal level. https://t.co/FHZuTYS8do
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) July 1, 2019
“As the marijuana industry continues to grow, there are people of color sitting behind bars for doing the exact same thing. It’s time we changed the system,” Harris said at a conference in April 2019, adding that those most impacted by the war on drugs should be prioritized when it comes to job opportunities in the legal industry.
As the marijuana industry continues to grow, there are people of color sitting behind bars for doing the exact same thing. It's time we changed the system. #SheThePeople2020 pic.twitter.com/7KotnCqihx
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 24, 2019
She also pledged to pardon some non-violent drug offenders if elected president.
“We have to have the courage to recognize that there are a lot of folks who have been incarcerated who should not have been incarcerated and are still in prison because they were convicted under draconian laws that have incarcerated them… for what is essentially a public health issue,” she said.
In November, Harris discussed the need for industry equity and joked about businesses claiming that rubbing CBD lotion all over one’s body is a cure-all.
The senator said that drug addiction should be treated as a health issue and “not in jails and prisons,” adding that people with prior cannabis convictions should be “first in line” to get jobs in the legal market.
Harris also said she would implement “mental health care on demand and drug treatment on demand.”
“As President of the United States, one of the things I will implement is that we have mental health care on demand and drug treatment on demand.”
— Women's March (@womensmarch) April 24, 2019
“Countless Americans have felt the devastating ramifications of the War on Drugs—millions still remain incarcerated to this day,” Harris said in March. “This is a matter of public health, drug addiction, and economic security. I’ll say it again as I did in 2008: it was a complete failure.”
Countless Americans have felt the devastating ramifications of the War on Drugs — millions still remain incarcerated to this day. This is a matter of public health, drug addiction, and economic security. I’ll say it again as I did in 2008: it was a complete failure. pic.twitter.com/WLjk5dMp1b
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) March 9, 2019
“Our justice system continues to target and imprison young Black and Latinx Americans at high levels due to outdated, unjust marijuana laws,” she wrote. “I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: we must legalize marijuana across the country.”
Our justice system continues to target and imprison young Black and Latinx Americans at high levels due to outdated, unjust marijuana laws. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: we must legalize marijuana across the country.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 26, 2019
She also discussed her views on marijuana and drug policy during a campaign stop in New Hampshire in July.
“We have to treat it as a public health issue, specifically on the issue of marijuana,” Harris said. “We incarcerated whole entire populations, in particular young men of color, for possessing marijuana, and they ended up being felons for life on an issue that was literally—if you look at it just in terms of the disparities in terms of who was arrested, who was incarcerated and who was abusing—it was just wrong.”
Previous Quotes And Social Media Posts
When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, which provided guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, she said the Justice Department shouldn’t be focused on “going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.”
California needs federal support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations. What we don’t need is Jeff Sessions going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) January 5, 2018
Sessions should be focusing on issues like transnational criminal organizations and investigating and prosecuting human trafficking, not going after Californians who are using recreational and medicinal marijuana.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 8, 2018
“This administration and Jeff Sessions want to take us back to the dark ages,” Harris said at the Center for American Progress Ideas Conference in 2017. “Sessions has threatened that the United States Department of Justice may renew its focus on marijuana use even as states like California, where it is legal.”
“Well, let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions,” she said. “We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations, dealing with issues like human trafficking—not going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana. Leave her alone.”
Harris hadn’t signed onto any marijuana reform legislation during the time she was going after Sessions. But she was using the battle to solicit signatures on a petition, a common tactic that politicians use to build email lists that they can later use for fundraising. Several House members pressured her and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to take stronger action by blocking Justice Department nominees until the Cole memo was restored.
The senator has repeatedly called for federal cannabis decriminalization, characterizing existing laws as “regressive policies” that have “ruined” many lives.
It’s time to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. It’s time to stop repeating the same mistakes of the past.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 20, 2018
Decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level isn’t just the smart thing to do, it’s also the right thing to do. We can’t keep repeating the same mistakes of the past. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) August 14, 2018
“We need to decriminalize marijuana,” she said. “We have a problem of mass incarceration in our country. And let’s be clear, the war on drug was a failed war. It was misdirected.”
Decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level isn’t just a smart thing to do —it’s the right thing to do. We can’t keep repeating the same mistakes of the past. Too many lives have been ruined by these regressive policies.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) December 11, 2018
She has also criticized the federal government for blocking military veterans’ access to medical cannabis.
“As states moves toward legalizing marijuana, let’s remember how many lives have been ruined because of our regressive policies,” Harris wrote. “We must focus on restorative justice.”
As states moves toward legalizing marijuana, let's remember how many lives have been ruined because of our regressive policies. We must focus on restorative justice.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) December 11, 2018
In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Harris said “I started my career as a baby prosecutor during the height of the crack epidemic—not all drugs are equal.”
“We have over-criminalized so many people, in particular poor youth and men of color, in communities across this country and we need to move it on the schedule,” she said. “Plus we need to start researching the effect of marijuana and we have not been able to do it because of where it is on the schedule.”
Harris congratulated Canada on its national legalization of marijuana in 2018.
Congratulations to Canada on moving forward with the legalization of marijuana. As the world moves forward, we can’t afford to keep making the same mistakes of the past — it’s time to legalize marijuana at the federal level.https://t.co/BnUKR2fErF
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 22, 2018
Curiously, however, Harris also has a habit of referring to the war on drugs in the past tense—as if it isn’t the case that hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. are still being arrested for cannabis and other drugs every year.
The war on drugs was an abject failure which affects all of our communities, especially those struggling. We can’t turn the clock back. https://t.co/5b2fH4aBap
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) May 16, 2017
The war on drugs was a failure. It criminalized what is a public health matter. It was a war on poor communities more than anything.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) April 21, 2017
“The war on drugs was a failure,” she said in 2017. “It criminalized what is a public health matter. It was a war on poor communities more than anything.”
She also accused Sessions of “resuscitating” the drug war.
During her time as a prosecutor, Harris said she “saw the war on drugs up close, and let me tell you, the war on drugs was an abject failure.”
“It offered taxpayers a bad return on investment, it was bad for public safety, it was bad for budgets and our economy, and it was bad for people of color and those struggling to make ends meet,” she said.
The fact is, the War on Drugs did not work.
— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) May 16, 2017
“I’ll tell you what standing up for the people also means,” Harris said in 2015. “It means challenging the policy of mass incarceration by recognizing the war on drugs was a failure. And Democrats, on that point, let’s be clear also: now is the time to end the federal ban on medical marijuana. It is.”
During a speech announcing her presidential candidacy, Harris said, “Once and for all, we have got to call drug addiction what it is: a national, public health emergency. And what we don’t need is another war on drugs.”
Before Harris backed full legalization or federal decriminalization, she was supportive of rescheduling cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act. Asked about the policy in 2016, she said “I would work to remove marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II.”
“We need to reform our criminal justice system and changing the marijuana classification and drug sentencing laws are part of that effort.”
At a debate that year, she predicted that California voters would approve full legalization via a ballot measure (which they did) and reiterated that “we have to do is move [marijuana] from Schedule I to Schedule II.”
“We have incarcerated a large number of predominantly African American and Latino men in this country for possession and use at a very small scale of one of the least dangerous drugs in the schedule,” she said.
It is worth noting that Harris did not publicly endorse California’s successful 2016 cannabis legalization ballot initiative, though it is unknown how she personally voted on the measure.
Two years earlier, Harris told BuzzFeed that while she wasn’t ready to back the idea of legalization, she was “not opposed” to it and that there was “a certain inevitability about it.”
“It would be easier for me to say, ‘Let’s legalize it, let’s move on,’ and everybody would be happy. I believe that would be irresponsible of me as the top cop,” she said. “The detail of these things matters… I don’t have any moral opposition to it or anything like that. Half my family’s from Jamaica.”
But amid an earlier attempt to legalize marijuana in California through a 2010 initiative that appeared on the same ballot as Harris’s candidacy for state attorney general, she called the measure a “flawed public policy.” Her campaign manager said she “supports the legal use of medicinal marijuana but does not support anything beyond that” and that she “believes that drug selling harms communities.”
She also co-authored an argument against the measure that appeared in the state’s official ballot guide, stating that legalization “seriously compromises the safety of our communities, roadways, and workplaces.”
During a speech at The Commonwealth Club in 2010, Harris scoffed at a question about cannabis reform and said “I’m not a proponent of that, but I know that there are a lot of people who are. It’s not my issue.” At the same event she spoke about prosecuting people for selling drugs, saying, “I don’t feel sorry for you and I’m not going to forgive you for committing a crime.”
Harris was then asked about legalizing marijuana. She laughed at the idea. pic.twitter.com/7DWpFonRd5
— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) July 2, 2019
Later, during her stint as attorney general, Harris received criticism from some marijuana policy reform advocates for not doing more to push back against federal prosecutors’ crackdown against locally approved California medical cannabis dispensaries during the first term of the Obama administration, though she did send a series of letters on the topic and made some public statements.
“The federal government is ill-equipped to be the sole arbiter of whether an individual or group is acting within the bounds of California’s medical marijuana laws when cultivating marijuana for medical purposes,” she wrote in a letter to the state’s U.S. attorneys.
She also called on state lawmakers to clarify California’s medical cannabis laws in a separate letter, which argued that reforms might ward off further federal intervention. “Without a substantive change to existing law, these irreconcilable interpretations of the law, and the resulting uncertainty for law enforcement and seriously ill patients, will persist,” she wrote.
“Californians overwhelmingly support the compassionate use of medical marijuana for the ill. We should all be troubled, however, by the proliferation of gangs and criminal enterprises that seek to exploit this law by illegally cultivating and trafficking marijuana,” she said in a statement around the same time. “While there are definite ambiguities in state law that must be resolved either by the state legislature or the courts, an overly broad federal enforcement campaign will make it more difficult for legitimate patients to access physician-recommended medicine in California. I urge the federal authorities in the state to adhere to the United States Department of Justice’s stated policy and focus their enforcement efforts on ‘significant traffickers of illegal drugs.’”
An analysis by the Washington Free Beacon determined that at least 1,560 people were sent to California state prisons for marijuana-related offenses during Harris’s tenure as attorney general.
In a 2008 book, Harris argued that nonviolent crimes “exact a huge toll on America’s communities” and that it’s “important to fight all crime.”
Kamala Harris's 2008 book "Smart on Crime": "Nonviolent crimes exact a huge toll on America's communities…It's important to fight all crime. Drug crimes in particular exact a terrible toll and rob people young and old of hope." pic.twitter.com/cjeo71Mu0x
— Zaid Jilani (@ZaidJilani) July 5, 2019
“Drug crimes in particular exact a terrible toll and rob people young and old of hope,” she wrote.
Harris’s overall evolution on cannabis can be neatly summed up with two videos. The first shows her being asked about marijuana legalization in 2014 in light of her Republican opponent for attorney general supporting it. She dismissively laughs off the question.
The second shows Harris during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing pressing President Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, on whether he’d use Justice Department funds to go after marijuana businesses acting in compliance with state law.
HARRIS: You do not intend to use fed resources to enforce fed marijuana law in states that have legalized?
BARR: “That’s right. But I think i’s incumbent on the Congress to make a decision as to whether we are going to have a federal system.” pic.twitter.com/owWekY9PqP
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 15, 2019
Harris even attempted to crack her own marijuana joke during a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, though the late night host didn’t seem especially amused.
In her book, The Truths We Hold, she took her message in support of legalization a step further. Not only should we “legalize marijuana and regulate it,” but we should also “expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives,” Harris wrote.
“We also need to stop treating drug addiction like a public safety crisis instead of what it is: a public health crisis,” she also wrote, suggesting she may be in favor of broader drug policy reforms. “When someone is suffering from addiction, their situation is made worse, not better, by involvement in the criminal justice system.”
It’s past time America legalized marijuana and regulated it. But when doing so, we need to expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 10, 2019
Harris’s presidential campaign website hosts a petition to legalize marijuana.
Personal Experience With Marijuana
Harris revealed in a radio interview that she smoked marijuana in college while listening to Tupac and Snoop Dogg, saying, “It gives a lot of people joy, and we need more joy in the world.”
— The Breakfast Club (@breakfastclubam) February 11, 2019
But that admission sparked a small controversy, with several people pointing out that neither artist had released their debut albums prior to Harris graduating. She conceded in November that she “ definitely was not clear about what I was listening to” while consuming cannabis.
In a separate interview, the senator said that she knows people who have benefited from using medical cannabis.
Marijuana Under A Biden-Harris Administration
Both Harris and Biden have evolved their positions on cannabis over time. Harris, a former prosecutor who campaigned against legalization in her own state has become the lead sponsor of a bill to federally legalize marijuana. Biden, who authored punitive drug legislation during his time as a senator, now supports modest cannabis reforms such as decriminalization and rescheduling, though he continue to oppose legalization. If the Democratic ticket gets elected, it remains to be seen to what extent the new administration would prioritize drug policy reform efforts and whether Harris would seek to encourage Biden to get behind full legalization.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.
Wyoming Judge Dismisses Marijuana Charges Against Hemp Farmers
The state treasurer, House majority floor leader and House Judiciary Committee chairman testified in support of the farmers.
By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com
CHEYENNE—A Laramie County judge threw out drug trafficking charges against hemp advocates and farmers Debra Palm-Egle and Joshua Egle Thursday, finding prosecutors lacked probable cause that the mother-and-son duo intended to grow and distribute marijuana.
At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, Laramie County Circuit Court Judge Antoinette Williams also dismissed charges against a contractor and his wife, Brock and Shannon Dyke, who worked for the farmers and were on the property when the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation raided it in November 2019.
Prosecutors sought to charge all four with conspiracy to manufacture, deliver or possess marijuana; possession with intent to deliver marijuana; possession of marijuana and planting or cultivating marijuana. All but the last are felonies. The judge dismissed all charges, including a misdemeanor marijuana charge, a court clerk said Friday.
Lawyers for the defendant argued, and the judge ultimately ruled, that the farmers had intended to produce hemp, not marijuana. The day of the raid, Brock Dykes showed DCI agents the results of tests conducted on the crop that indicated it contained less than 0.3% THC.
Under Wyoming’s hemp statutes, the crop has to have a THC-concentration limit below 0.3%. Marijuana and hemp are derived from the same plant. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the chemical in marijuana that gets users high. Its low presence in hemp keeps the crop from being categorized a drug.
Acting on a tip, DCI ultimately seized 700 pounds of hemp from the Egles’ farm. When agents ran it through a series of their own tests, most test results came back with THC concentrations higher than 0.3%. The highest result was 0.6%.
Laramie County Assistant District Attorney David Singleton, who prosecuted the case, argued that any plant testing over 0.3% is marijuana, not hemp. The judge, however, said it was clear the farmers intended to grow hemp, citing as evidence Dyke’s presentation of earlier test results to DCI and the Egles’ long history as hemp farmers.
Reached by phone Friday, Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove declined to comment on the case.
The dismissal of the case at such an early stage in criminal procedures — during a preliminary hearing — is unusual. Tom Jubin, a lawyer for the Egles, said that during his decades-long career this was only the third of his cases to end at that early stage.
“It’s pretty rare but it’s also pretty rare that a prosecutor would take a case like this and push it,” Jubin told WyoFile after the judge’s verdict.
“Please, have the courage to get these people home,” Jubin asked the judge during his closing remarks. In June, a different judge restricted Deborah Palm-Egle to Laramie County, though her home is in Colorado, her son told WyoFile.
Judge Williams’ own comments before her verdict were brief.
She understood why prosecutors had chosen to bring the case, she said, but did not believe they had probable cause. She also reprimanded the Egles, who had begun growing their hemp crop without a license while state and federal authorities were still developing rules for the newly legalized crop.
The Egles were prominent activists in front of the Legislature who helped push Wyoming’s hemp bill through. House Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), who took the witness stand Thursday, testified that he knew the Egles and understood them to be hemp farmers with no intention of growing marijuana. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater) and Wyoming State Treasurer Curt Meier submitted statements with similar testimony in support of the Egles.
As such, the Egles “knew the law as well as anyone,” Williams said, and should have been licensed.
Under Wyoming statute, the Egles could face a $750 fine for growing hemp without a license. Such a penalty is a far cry from the decades of prison time they could have gotten if convicted on prosecutors’ charges.
After the judge’s ruling, Shannon Dykes rushed to tearfully embrace Palm-Egle, who is in a wheelchair. “Thank God it’s over,” Palm-Egle said.
Joshua Egle began growing what he described as a test crop of hemp for research purposes before he got his license, he told WyoFile after the hearing. Working in unfamiliar soil, it would take time for farmers to understand how to harvest the plants at the right time to keep THC concentrations legal, he said.
At the time, he was betting officials would soon work out the new industry regulation kinks and allow him to license the crop, he said. In the meantime, “we had to get going,” he said.
The Egles, and other hemp proponents, have pitched the crop as a new outlet for Wyoming’s farmers, and a viable path for economic diversification for a state struggling with its dependence on the energy industry. Egle will continue to pursue hemp farming in Wyoming, he said.
On Nov. 4, the Dykes were at the Egles’ property in Albin, a farming village in eastern Laramie County near the Nebraska line. The Egles, who live principally in Colorado, were not home. Brock Dykes was taking advantage of fresh snow to burn some waste wood, he told WyoFile in an interview after the judge’s verdict Thursday.
Dykes and his wife were standing outside and saw a line of unmarked cars, and one Wyoming Highway Patrol car, coming toward the property, he said. Their first thought was someone had called in concern about the smoke, he said. His two sons, then 11 and 12 years old, were inside the farmhouse.
Law enforcement officers, who ultimately turned out to be DCI agents, came out of the cars in tactical gear and with rifles pointed at the couple, the Dykes said, yelling at them to “put their fucking hands up.” Brock Dykes saw “five or six officers with a battering ram” approaching the door of the house where his sons were, he said. He yelled that it was unlocked and they didn’t use the ram.
Officers trained guns on the two boys as well, the Dykes said. It was 45 minutes to an hour before Shannon Dykes was able to see her sons, she said.
The investigation had begun when a “reliable source of information” called DCI concerned that the Egles were growing marijuana, according to the charging documents. DCI agents visited the farm several times and spotted what they believed to be marijuana plants drying in an open barn.
DCI agents never contacted the Egles, either before the raid or during the five months between the raid and pressing felony charges, according to the DCI investigator’s testimony during the trial.
“You sought charges against these farmers for crimes that carry decades of prison time without ever talking to them?” Jubin asked DCI Special Agent John Briggs, who led the investigation, during the hearings.
“I did not interview them, no sir,” the investigator answered.
The Dykes were never handcuffed during the raid, they said. Testimony during the preliminary hearing, which took place over two afternoons in July and August, established that Brock Dykes tried to explain the Egles were growing hemp. He showed officers the THC testing results Joshua Egle had sent him, which were on his cellphone.
Briggs was not interested in those results at the time of the raid, Dykes told WyoFile. Briggs told Dykes “I’m not going to argue with you about the technical difference between hemp and marijuana,” Dykes said.
The Dykes’ attorney, Michael Bennett, asked the judge to consider what kind of criminal would “show [testing] proof to agents, as if it were some elaborate ruse to grow the worst marijuana in the entire universe.”
DCI agents confiscated 722 pounds of plants, according to the affidavit. During the court hearings, Briggs testified that then-agency director Steve Woodson, and then assistant-director Forrest Williams drove a vehicle to the farm to collect the crop. Woodson retired in early 2020, and Williams is today the agency’s interim director.
Though relieved at the judge’s action Thursday, the Dykes remain angry at the DCI agents and prosecutors who brought such heavy charges against them. The young couple and small business owners have had to pay for weekly drug tests since early June, and spent considerable money on a lawyer, they said.
“This is all very, very surreal,” Dykes said.
The hemp industry has now progressed in Wyoming, and a number of people around him are growing the crop, he said. “How many more people are growing right now whose neighbor is going to call the police?” he said.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.