Bernie Sanders' plan to legalize marijuana does more than just legalize marijuana
"Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
—John Ehrlichman, Chief Domestic Advisor for Richard Nixon
In the welter of plans from the welter of Democratic primary candidates, this should not be missed. Bernie Sanders' plan to legalize marijuana does exactly that — he will take it off the Schedule I list of controlled substances by executive order and not add it to the Schedule II list (as Biden would do), leaving it completely unregulated nationally.
But the Sanders plan also does more. He will start to repair the damage done to millions of people, mainly those of color, by conviction of marijuana "crimes." In addition, a third part of his plan will prevent the marijuana industry from becoming (or being dominated by) Big Tobacco.
Here are the pieces in detail.
Legalizing Marijuana Immediately
From Sanders plan:
As president, Bernie will:
Legalize marijuana in the first 100 days with executive action by:
- Nominating an attorney general, HHS secretary, and administrator for the DEA who will all work to aggressively end the drug war and legalize marijuana
- Immediately issuing an executive order that directs the Attorney General to declassify marijuana as a controlled substance
- While Congress must aggressively move to end the war on drugs and undo its damage, as president Bernie will not wait for Congress to act.
- Passing legislation to ensure permanent legalization of marijuana
I would expect most serious candidates to follow suit on this plan, but I trust Sanders more than almost any other candidate to follow through as a Day 1 action. Would this be a Day 1–type action for Buttigieg or Warren? I doubt it. O'Rourke perhaps would prioritize this, but he's not going to see the White House anytime soon without a visitor's pass.
Vacate All Past Marijuana Convictions
It's not enough — not by half — to simply legalize marijuana for the current generation of users. One of the greatest injustices in our history — the utter and deliberate devastation of millions of American lives, most of them people of color — was perpetrated on two past generations as well, starting with the generation that came of age under Richard Nixon.
Yes, deliberate devastation. Here's John Ehrlichman in a late-in-life interview confessing to this decades-old crime. Ehrlichman speaking (quoted here; emphasis mine):
“You want to know what this [the war on drugs] was really all about? ... The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Bernie Sanders will do his best to undo this damage, starting with the living victims. Those who have died in prison or at the end of reduced or destroyed post-prison lives cannot, sadly, be made whole. They must remain on Nixon and Ehrlichman's account book forever. (For crimes like this, I do hope there's a hell.)
Here's what Sanders will do for the victims still alive (emphasis mine):
Vacate and expunge all past marijuana-related convictions.
- In a Sanders administration we will review all marijuana convictions - both federal and state - for expungement and re-sentencing. All past convictions will be expunged.
- Based on the California model, we will direct federal and state authorities to review current and past marijuana related convictions for eligibility. This review will include re-sentencing for all currently incarcerated with marijuana convictions. Following determination of eligibility or status, prosecutors will have one year to appeal or object, after which authorities will automatically expunge and vacate past marijuana convictions for all those eligible.
- Federal funding will be provided to states and cities to partner with organizations that can help develop and operate the expungement determination process, much like how California worked with Code for America.
- Allow people with marijuana convictions to contact the state to ensure the list did not miss them. And we will grant people with marijuana related convictions an administrative remedy, if after two years, the state has not taken action on their sentences and records.
- Revitalize the executive clemency process by creating an independent clemency board removed from the Department of Justice and placed in the White House.
- Ensure a just reentry for people leaving incarceration as detailed in Bernie’s Justice and Safety for All plan.
All this is promised by executive action on Day 1, or as near to Day 1 as can be managed.
Invest Revenue from Legal Marijuana into Communities Hardest Hit by the "War on Drugs"
As the legal marijuana industry grows — and it will get a massive boost from immediately 50-state legalization — tax money that results from it must be used properly. For Sanders this means returning that money to the hardest hit communities.
From the plan:
Ensure that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs, especially African-American and other communities of color.
With new tax resources from legal marijuana sales, we will:
- Create a $20 billion grant program within the Minority Business Development Agency to provide grants to entrepreneurs of color who continue to face discrimination in access to capital.
- With this revenue we will also create a $10 billion grant program to focus on businesses that are at least 51% owned or controlled by those in disproportionately impacted areas or individuals who have been arrested for or convicted of marijuana offenses.
- Provide formerly incarcerated individuals with training and resources needed to start their own businesses and worker owned businesses, and guarantee jobs and free job training at trade schools and apprenticeship programs related to marijuana businesses. [...]
- Use revenue from marijuana sales to establish a targeted $10 billion USDA grant program to help disproportionately impacted areas and individuals who have been arrested for or convicted of marijuana offenses start urban and rural farms and urban and rural marijuana growing operations to ensure people impacted by the war on drugs have access to the entire marijuana industry. [...]
- Create a $10 billion targeted economic and community development fund to provide grants to communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs.
- We will also ensure that every community in the country has the resources they need to address our opioid addiction crisis and prevent the abuse of other hard drugs. And we will work with states to fund and pursue innovative overdose prevention initiatives.
Eliminate barriers to public benefits for people who have interacted with the criminal justice system, including licenses and contracts, based on prior records, and eliminate drug testing requirements from future benefits and ensure people cannot be removed from public housing for marijuana use.
- We will also direct agencies to remove all references to marijuana that limit people’s ability to access government services and we will eliminate the consequences of a marijuana record related to immigration.
Legalization without reparations is simply cruel, benefiting the unpunished at the expense of the already broken and destroyed. Sanders plan includes reparations.
Prevent Marijuana from Becoming Big Tobacco
One of the greatest fears of many who watch the marijuana business grow is that it will become yet another rip-off billionaire industry dominated by a few players who charge what they please and buy laws and regulations that outlaw or disadvantage smaller entrepreneurial enterprises from participating. (For examples, see here and here).
Fears of a "neoliberal response" to the prospect of marijuana decriminalization are not unfounded. Do you want Coca Cola, Disney, or RJ Reynolds to gain control of the marijuana market? Each of them, and many many more, would like to.
Bernie Sanders' plan addresses that possibility.
Ensure Legalized Marijuana Does Not Turn Into Big Tobacco
Big Tobacco is already targeting the marijuana industry for its profits. As president, Bernie will not allow marijuana to turn into Big Tobacco. He will:
- Incentivize marijuana businesses to be structured like nonprofits.
- We will provide resources for people to start cooperatives and collective nonprofits as marijuana businesses that will create jobs and economic growth in local communities.
- Prohibit products and labels that target young people.
- Ban companies that have created cancer-causing products or guilty of deceptive marketing.
- Ban tobacco/cigarette corporations from participating in the marijuana industry.
- Institute market share and franchise caps to prevent consolidation and profiteering.
- Regulate the safety of marijuana products by granting the federal government regulatory authority. Partner with USDA to establish safety inspection and quality control processes for growers and producers.
A comment about point three above: Punishing companies for past bad behavior is decidedly non-neoliberal, and just a start in my view for how these companies should be treated. If a living breathing person committed premeditated murder, what would the punishment be? Now what if that deliberate murderer were a non-breathing corporate person? Should the sentence be less?
Jeffrey Dahmer killed fewer than twenty people. He was incarcerated for life and later beaten to death by a fellow prisoner. How many hundreds did Ford Motors kill with its exploding Pinto? How many millions does Big Tobacco continue to kill? Should any company with this kind of past be rewarded with the gift of the next big profit opportunity, or should it be shut down instead ("incarcerated for life") and their executives prosecuted as breathing deliberate killers?
Other parts of Sanders' platform deal with forbidding monopoly practices, and they would apply here as well. But making explicitly sure that a vibrant marijuana industry is not quickly dominated by a de facto monopoly of its own would be, dare we say it, a breath of fresh air.