Bernie Sanders Introduces Legislation to End Federal Ban on Marijuana

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation on Wednesday that would end the federal prohibition on marijuana, removing the drug from the federal government’s list of the “most dangerous” substances – a move that distinguishes the Democratic presidential hopeful from the other candidates in the race.

Under Sanders’ plan, marijuana would not automatically become legal. Rather, states would have the right to decide whether or not they want to legalize the drug – without fear of federal impediment. In effect, states would inherit the power to regulate marijuana in the same way state and local laws now govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco.

“In my view, the time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana,” Sanders said at a campaign event at George Mason University in Virginia last month, when he first announced his intentions.

During his remarks at the university, Sanders said that the federal marijuana prohibition has blighted the lives of too many young people, especially young people of color.

“Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use,” Sanders told the crowd of college students. “That is wrong. That has got to change.”

Marijuana is currently classified by the US Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy, a fact which Sanders has called “absurd”. (Cocaine is designated as a less strict Schedule 2 drug.) His bill would not permit the transportation of marijuana across state lines.

As president, Sanders would have the executive authority to de-schedule the drug; other proposals would require Congress to act.

The bill is also intended to allow growers and dispensers to use the banks, which routinely shun business from the legal pot industry for fear they’ll be shut down by federal authorities.

Though pot remains an illegal substance under federal law, four states – Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska – as well as the District of Columbia have legalized the use of recreational marijuana. The US Justice Department has in effect stopped enforcing the law in states where voters have elected to legalize recreational use – but there is no guarantee a future administration would take the same approach .

“The Obama administration has essentially allowed these states to go forward and to do what their people have chosen to do,” Sanders said in a Senate floor speech last week. “That’s a good step forward, but not good enough, because a new administration with a different point of view could simply go forward and prosecute these marijuana businesses despite what the people in these given states have chosen to do.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, has said that if elected he would use his executive power to reclassify marijuana to a lower tier under federal drug laws. The party’s frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, has espoused a “wait and see” approach, saying she would monitor legalization experiments in Colorado and Washington – the two states here marijuana is fully legalized – before committing to changes at the federal level.

While likely to be well-received among his young liberal base, the bill is unlikely to gain traction in the Senate.

But pro-legalization groups are marking Sanders’s legislation as a milestone: the first time such a bill has been introduced in the chamber.

“Senator Sanders really grabbed the nation’s attention when he became the first major-party presidential candidate to speak out in support of ending marijuana prohibition,” said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which has given Sanders an “A” grade for his stance on the issue. “His actions today speak even louder than his words last month. Hopefully, this legislation will get his colleagues in Congress talking about the need for comprehensive marijuana policy reform.”

A recent Gallup poll found that 58% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, though only a handful of lawmakers in Congress currently support legalization or leaving the matter to states.

Marijuana Majority pointed to the bill as a sign that the movement has not lost its momentum since Ohio voters rejected a ballot initiative to legalize the substance.

“A growing majority of Americans want states to be able to enact their own marijuana laws without harassment from the DEA, and lawmakers should listen,” said Tom Angell, the president of Marijuana Majority, which does not endorse political candidates. “The introduction of this bill proves that the defeat of the Ohio marijuana monopoly measure that wasn’t widely supported in our movement isn’t doing anything to slow down our national momentum.”


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