Ex-AG Applauds Sanders' Stance On Marijuana Legalization

Bern It Up: Former Surgeon General Applauds Sanders’ Stance On Marijuana

For a long time Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has favored decriminalizing marijuana. Just weeks after announcing his candidacy last April, Sanders fielded questions about his views on legalization in an “Ask Me Anything” thread on the popular online forum Reddit.

“Let me just say this—the state of Vermont voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and I support that. I have supported the use of medical marijuana. And when I was mayor of Burlington, in a city with a large population, I can tell you very few people were arrested for smoking marijuana. Our police had more important things to do.”

The response echoed his answer to a similar question on the same topic in a 2014 interview with Time magazine, though then he also said legalization was “not one of the major issues facing this country.” He promised to further “look at” the issue and to talk to “young people and others” about it.

A more progressive approach to legalizing marijuana.

Whatever he found while looking at and discussing the issue clearly led him to have a more progressive outlook on legalization, particularly in regards to its relationship to mass incarceration and social justice.

In November Sanders introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, which seeks to legalize recreational use of cannabis at the federal level.

Addressing students at Virginia’s George Mason University at the time, Sanders said

“We need major changes in our criminal justice system — including changes in drug laws. Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That’s wrong. That has got to change.”

In January Sanders went even further, directly linking legalization and criminal justice reform in a tweet:

Sanders believes states should have the right to regulate cannabis in much the same way they regulate alcohol and cigarettes, and that marijuana should be removed from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s schedule of federally controlled substances, which currently has cannabis classified in the same tier of drugs as heroin and LSD.

Sanders’ views on legalization are popular and gaining more support.

As David G. Graham explains in an October article from The Atlantic, Sanders’ views are within the mainstream:

“What’s interesting about Sanders’s proposal is that it is at once radical and at the same time would simply ratify much of what’s already happening across the United States, where states have already begun liberalizing laws without waiting for Washington’s consent, and voter support for legalization is now well past the 50-percent mark.”

Despite Sanders’ proposals falling within the current political discourse on legalization, he has had trouble finding support for his bill among his Senate colleagues. However, former Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders recently expressed views similar to Sanders’. 

When asked about legalization in an interview with Marijuana Politics on Saturday, Elders said she “certainly would support” such a move.

“You know, we don’t have cigarettes [in the Controlled Substances Act]. We don’t have alcohol on it,” she added, “So I think that marijuana should be removed and studied and looked at,” Elders told Marijuana Politics while in San Francisco for the International Cannabis Business Conference where she delivered a keynote address on cannabis reform.

Elders’ comments probably won’t help Sanders gain a co-sponsor for his bill, but they do suggest that he might ultimately prove to be on the right side of the debate, as more and more prominent advocates call for legalization.

Marijuana Politics notes that Sanders is not the only presidential candidate advocating for cannabis reforms but argues that has “gone further on this issue than any other candidate from the two major parties.”

“Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been more cautious, calling instead for rescheduling cannabis to Schedule II, the same drug category as cocaine and methamphetamine,” according to Marijuana Politics.

Legalization is part of Sanders’ Racial Justice platform

The “Racial Justice” page in the “Issues” category of Sanders’ official campaign website says:

“It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy. This must change.”

His racial justice platform also states “We need to take marijuana off the federal government’s list of outlawed drugs” and “We need to allow people in states which legalize marijuana to be able to fully participate in the banking system and not be subject to federal prosecution for using pot.”

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Darien Cavanaugh is a writer based in Columbia, SC. He lives with his girlfriend, Amy, and their two mutty pit bulls.