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Where Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Stands On Marijuana

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced that he’s making another run for the Democratic presidential nomination on February 19, 2019.

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 November 12, 2019 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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

His plan also contains 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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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 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.

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.”

“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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

“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.”

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 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.”

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

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.”

“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.”

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.

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,” 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.

“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.

While most 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have backed legalization at this point, Sanders’s long-standing record of standing up for drug policy reform gives voters relatively strong assurance that marijuana legalization would be near the top of his priorities as president.

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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.

Culture

Postal Service Unveils ‘Drug Free USA Forever’ Stamp Commemorating 1980s Anti-Drug Program

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The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is rolling out a new stamp design that pays tribute to 1980s-era drug prevention programs and promotes a “drug-free USA.”

The stamps, which will go on sale starting in October 2020, were announced at the conclusion of this year’s Red Ribbon Week last month, an annual occurrence first launched under the Reagan administration.

“This Drug Free USA Forever stamp will help further raise awareness about the dangers of drug abuse, and the toll it is taking on families and communities around our country,” Robert Duncan, chairman of the USPS Board of Governors, said in a press release. “The Postal Service is glad to do its part in marking Red Ribbon Week, and renewing our commitment to helping these efforts to educate youth about the dangers of illegal drugs.”

Via USPS.

USPS explained that Red Ribbon Week originated after a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent was tortured and killed in Mexico while investigating drug traffickers in 1985.

“I am very pleased that the U.S. Postal Service will issue a stamp affirming our commitment to a drug-free America,” DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said. “This stamp will help raise awareness of the fight against drug addiction and honor those who have dedicated their lives to that cause.”

A description of the design states that the stamp “features a white star with lines of red, light blue and blue radiating from one side of each of the star’s five points, suggesting the unity necessary at all levels to effectively address drug abuse.”

USPS isn’t applying anti-drug messaging to the cannabis component CBD anymore, however. In September, the agency clarified that hemp-derived CBD products can be mailed under certain circumstances since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.

For those with mailing needs who aren’t interested in supporting the notion of a “Drug Free USA,” USPS does have another stamp that recognizes the 50-year anniversary of the drug-fueled 1969 counterculture music festival Woodstock.

Via USPS.

The stamp “features an image of a dove along with the words ‘3 DAYS OF PEACE AND MUSIC,’ evoking the original promotional poster for the festival,” USPS says.

Another option is a John Lennon Forever stamp, celebrating the iconic Beatles member and marijuana enthusiast who famously got “high with a little help” from his friends.

Via USPS.

“Still beloved around the world, Lennon’s music remains an anchor of pop radio and continues to speak for truth and peace,” USPS wrote.

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Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

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New Congressional Resolution Calls For Marijuana Legalization And Drug Expungements

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Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) released a congressional resolution on Thursday that calls for a fundamental reshaping of the criminal justice system, in part by legalizing marijuana and expunging all drug-related convictions.

The congresswoman’s “People’s Justice Guarantee” resolution outlines “a bold, new vision for justice in the American criminal legal system” that’s designed to “transform the U.S. criminal legal system to one that meets America’s foundational yet unfilled promise of justice for all.”

The ultimate goal of the measure is to reduce mass incarceration in the country through a series of reform steps that includes ending for-profit prisons, decriminalizing certain non-violent offenses, imposing caps on criminal sentences, abolishing the death penalty, expanding access to mental health services in prisons and reinvesting in communities that have been most impacted by “tough of crime” criminal policies.

Some have characterized the resolution as the “Green New Deal” of criminal justice reform, comparable in scope and ambition to the climate change plan championed by fellow “Squad” member Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

Drug policy reform isn’t the main feature of the resolution, but it does call for “decriminalizing addiction, homelessness, poverty, HIV status, and disabilities, including mental health diagnosis, by legalizing marijuana and overdose prevention sites, declining to criminally prosecute low-level offenses such as loitering and theft of necessity goods, and expunging the records of individuals for all drug-related offenses.”

Interestingly, an earlier draft of the measure reportedly contained language specifying that law enforcement should “use civil citations instead of arrests for drug possession,” according to a paraphrase by a reporter with The Appeal who reviewed the document but later updated her story to reflect the version that was actually filed. A call for an 80 percent reduction in the prison population was also removed from the text.

It’s not clear if the provision on “decriminalizing addiction” in the final resolution would involve all drug possession offenses, or why Pressley apparently decided to scale back the scope of the measure from the draft her staff circulated to reporters. Marijuana Moment reached out to the congresswoman’s office for clarification but a representative was not immediately available.

The ACLU, Color of Change and National Immigrant Law Center are among several civil rights groups that have endorsed the resolution, which was created in concert with advocates from the National Immigration Law Center, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Immigrant Defense Project, UndocuBlack Network and others.

“You cannot have a government for and by the people if it is not represented by all of the people,” Pressley said in a press release. “For far too long, those closest to the pain have not been closest to the power, resulting in a racist, xenophobic, rogue, and fundamentally flawed criminal legal system.”

“The People’s Justice Guarantee is the product of a symbiotic partnership with over 20 grassroots organizations and people impacted by the discriminatory policies of our legal system,” she said. “Our resolution calls for a bold transformation of the status quo—devoted to dismantling injustices so that the system is smaller, safer, less punitive, and more humane.”

While the freshman congresswoman declined to endorse a 2016 marijuana legalization measure that was ultimately approved by Massachusetts voters, she’s since positioned herself as a champion for reform, including by voting against an amendment barring people with drug convictions from working in child care services with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

She also voted in favor of amendments to protect all state marijuana programs from federal intervention and another introduced by Ocasio-Cortez to remove a budget rider that she argued inhibited research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.

In addition, Pressley has cosponsored bills concerning marijuana descheduling, research on the benefits of medical cannabis for military veterans and banking access by state-legal businesses.

Read the full text of Pressley’s justice reform resolution below: 

Pressley_The People’s J… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

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Support For Marijuana Legalization Increased Again In 2019, Pew Poll Finds

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Support for legalizing marijuana grew again this year, with just over two-thirds of Americans in favor of the policy, according to a Pew Research Center poll that was released on Thursday.

The survey, which involved phone interviews with about 9,900 adults from September 3-15, found that 67 percent of respondents think cannabis should be legal. That’s five percentage points higher than Pew’s last poll on the issue in 2018, and it closely reflects the percent support for legalization that Gallup reported (66 percent) in a survey released last month.

According to the results of a new question Pew asked for the first time that gave respondents multiple policy options to choose from, 91 percent of Americans said that marijuana should be legal for either medical or recreational purposes: Fifty nine percent said both forms should be legal and 32 percent said it should only be legal for medical use.

Just 8 percent want cannabis to remain illegal across the board.

That’s a notable finding, as some prohibitionists have argued that polls showing growing support for broad legalization are misleading because people would be less inclined to voice support for outright legalization if given more options. In fact, a sizable majority remains in favor of full legalization, according to Pew.

The poll also affirms that marijuana reform is an increasingly bipartisan issue, with a majority of Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP (55 percent) saying cannabis should be legal, compared to 78 percent of Democrats and those who lean toward the party.

Last year, the survey showed that only 45 percent of Republicans favored legalization, versus 69 percent of Democrats. Unlike the prior Pew poll, however, this latest version combines responses from party members and individuals who said they lean toward one party or the other. The previous survey distinguished those two groups and reported support separately.

“The percentage of the public who favors adult-use marijuana legalization has skyrocketed over the past three decades and shows no signs of abating,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said. “As more and more states have moved forward with their own marijuana liberalization policies in recent years, public support has only grown stronger. At a time when the political divide is larger than ever, the issue of marijuana legalization is one of the few policy issues upon which most Americans agree.”

There is majority support in the new survey for ending cannabis prohibition among both men and women, and across racial demographics.

Expect the upward trend in support to continue. The only age group where there isn’t majority support for legalizing marijuana is the Silent Generation (35 percent). Boomers and Generation X support the policy, 63 percent and 65 percent, respectively. But an overwhelming majority of Millennials (76 percent) back legalization.

The partisan gap for that generation is significantly narrower than the overall divide, with 71 percent of Millennial Republicans and 78 percent of Millennial Democrats saying cannabis should be legal.

 

“Two-thirds of Americans say the use of marijuana should be legal, reflecting a steady increase over the past decade,” Pew said. “The share of U.S. adults who oppose legalization has fallen from 52 percent in 2010 to 32 percent today.”

“The growth in public support for legal marijuana has come as a growing number of jurisdictions have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes,” the report states.

As Pew noted, numerous Democratic presidential candidates are in favor of cannabis legalization—with the notable exception of former Vice President Joe Biden—and the survey results suggest it’s a valuable policy position to have both in primaries and general elections.

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This story was updated to include comment from NORML.

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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