Vermont Senator and 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced his anticipated plan for full legalization of cannabis at 4:20 P.M. Eastern Time (yes, really) on Thursday, October 24, 2019, via a statement on his campaign website and social media. Sanders has been a stalwart supporter of issues that are important to the cannabis community since entering the national political consciousness as the ‘Democratic Socialist’ mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981. The eventual congressman and senator was also the first major presidential candidate to support legalization, in 2016. He has spoken out in the halls of D.C. power loudly and often since the Reagan era for legislation and causes that have included reforming or ending the military industrial complex and Drug War. Many expected Sanders plan for cannabis to be reflective of his progressive and social justice credentials, and he did not disappoint.
“We will legalize marijuana and vacate and expunge past marijuana convictions.” immediately announces the newly launched section on his campaign site dedicated to ‘Legalizing Marijuana’, and in describing the details, clearly and immediately addresses the systemic issues he seeks to redress. “When we talk about criminal justice reform and ending institutional racism in America, we are talking about ending the disastrous war on drugs, which has disproportionately targeted people of color and ruined the lives of millions of Americans.” He elaborates on that point further in the campaign statement; “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. 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.”
Sanders commits in his plan to immediately issue an executive order directing the Attorney General to declassify marijuana as a controlled substance, completely de-scheduling it as cannabis and health advocates have been suggesting, demanding, and pleading for years. His campaign is clear about the need for immediate executive action; “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.” Further in the plan for his first 100 days, Sanders and his campaign flesh out how they will release, vacate and expunge past pot convictions and current prisoners. Included are details of how the process of release and expungement will work, with some parts based on California’s system with Code for America, and others incorporated into the Senator’s previously released Justice and Safety for All plan.
Another section focuses on how as President, Sanders would “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”’ Included in the specific outline for that reinvestment is a $20 billion investment into a grant program within the Minority Business Development Agency to provide grants to entrepreneurs of color, another $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, and a further targeted $10 billion USDA grant program to help disproportionately impacted areas and individuals who have been arrested for or convicted of marijuana offenses to start urban and rural farms and growing operations, to ensure people impacted by the war on drugs have access to the entire marijuana industry. The funds for the grant programs would come from new cannabis tax revenue. Other highlights of the program include eliminating drug testing requirements and restrictions on public benefits for convicts, and allocating funds from cannabis revenue to address the opioid crisis.
Finally, the Sanders campaign directly addresses how they will keep cannabis from becoming Big Tobacco. Legal states and media commentators have been wary and increasingly critical of the rise in companies and business tactics they feel veer into an unethical and socially harmful side of cannabis capitalism. An outright ban on tobacco and cigarette companies participating in cannabis, and a commitment to “provide resources for people to start cooperatives and collective nonprofits as marijuana businesses that will create jobs and economic growth in local communities” are likely to be met with approval by cannabis growers, entrepreneurs and activists, while the language around taxes and regulations – which include “partner(ing) with USDA to establish safety inspection and quality control processes” may trigger skepticism and even concern. In many states the burdensome taxes and regulations of recreational adult legalization have many pining for previous days of relatively simple medically based decriminalization. In California, which led the charge on medical cannabis, the state passed legalization with Proposition 64 in 2018. The overly restrictive system of taxation and regulation instituted in the last year in CA includes taxes at every point of transfer and up to 30 percent to the retail consumer, and effectively destroyed the compassion programs the movement is based on. California’s legal cannabis industry was recently described as “a mess” by the LA Times, and many others.
There is an unmistakable feeling in the cannabis community of battle weariness from past politician promises and optimistic legislative goals, and some will surely see room for skepticism and improvement. Candidate Sanders has put out what will surely be considered by many to be the most progressive plan for legalization and addressing the impacts of criminalization in the election cycle thus far. Of course, no politician should be trusted to independently or singlehandedly implement the legislation or reforms they claim to support, but with decades of activism from within and without the political establishment on his record, it is realistic to hope and expect that the cannabis and justice communities would have an ally in President Bernie Sanders.