During a Senate floor speech Thursday on criminal justice reform, Sen. Bernie Sanders advocated for removing marijuana from a list of drugs outlawed by the federal government while calling for an end to the death penalty. The presidential candidate also pointed out that due to marijuana’s ambiguous legal status, a new administration under a Republican president could decide to enforce federal law by prosecuting marijuana businesses and individuals in states that have legalized medicinal or recreational pot.
“Tragically, in the United States of America we now have 2.2 million people in jail,” Sanders addressed the Senate. “That is more people incarcerated than any other country on Earth – including China, which is a communist, authoritarian country four times our size. We have more people in jail than does China. Further at a time of large deficits and a very large national debt, we are spending about $80 billion a year in federal, state, and local taxpayer money to lock people up.”
Sanders continued, “In 2014, there were 620,000 marijuana possession arrests. That is one arrest every minute. According to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), there were more than 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States from 2001 to 2010, and almost nine in ten were for possession. Arrests for marijuana possession rose last year nationwide even as Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia became the first states to legalize personal use of marijuana.”
Since the federal government lists marijuana as a hazardous Schedule I drug, Sanders pointed out that under the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is currently considered as dangerous as heroin. While addressing the absurdity in comparing marijuana to heroin, Sanders advocated for allowing each state to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws now govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco. He also supported allowing marijuana businesses to use the banking system without fear of federal prosecution.
Although Sanders acknowledged President Obama’s decision to allow the states to determine their own laws concerning marijuana legalization, the presidential candidate warned that a new administration could step in and start enforcing federal laws in 2017.
“In response to the initiatives that Colorado and other states have taken, the Obama administration has essentially allowed these states to go forward and to do what the people in those states have chosen to do,” Sanders observed. “That’s a good step forward. But it is not good enough, because a new administration with a different point of view could simply go forward and prosecute those marijuana businesses and individuals despite what the people in those states have chosen to do legislatively.”
Instead of advocating for full legalization of marijuana, Sanders wants that decision to be determined by each state and not left in the hands of the federal government. But according to the Marijuana Policy Project, many presidential candidates do not share Sanders’ views on marijuana legalization. Hell-bent on enforcing federal laws and ignoring states’ rights, GOP presidential candidates Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum have stated that they would prosecute marijuana businesses if elected.
“If you’re getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it,” Christie said during a town-hall meeting this summer at the Salt Hill Pub in Newport, New Hampshire. “As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws.”
Although Republican candidates Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, George Pataki, and Donald Trump do not support marijuana legalization, they do believe that states should be responsible for governing their own marijuana laws without interference from the federal government. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley also do not favor marijuana legalization but do support each state’s right to determine their own marijuana laws.
Even though the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that cannabis has killed cancer cells in the laboratory and the American Cancer Society has called for marijuana to be removed from the list of Schedule I drugs, reefer madness continues to grip our presidential candidates. So far 23 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted laws to legalize medical marijuana since California first legalized medicinal use of the plant in 1996.
On Thursday, Sanders announced his plan to introduce legislation to remove marijuana from a list of drugs outlawed by the federal government, paving the way for states to enforce their own policies. Sanders asserted, “The time is long overdue for us to take marijuana off of the federal government’s list of outlawed drugs.”