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How Bernie Sanders Changed Marijuana Forever

Bernie Sanders Changed Marijuana Forever Photo by Gage Skidmore

In The Magazine

How Bernie Sanders Changed Marijuana Forever

Photos by Gage Skidmore

How Bernie Sanders Changed Marijuana Forever

In the histories still to be written about the long, hard fight for federal cannabis reform, scholars will delineate between the only two epochs which really mattered: Before Bernie Sanders, and After Bernie Sanders.

Although the independent senator from Vermont failed to secure the Democratic nomination for president, he nevertheless did more to legalize it than any other presidential candidate in history – including Barack Obama. Simply put, he changed the game. Just look at what Hillary was saying before Bernie came around.

We can’t decriminalize drugs, she told a Mexican journalist back in 2011, “because there’s too much money in it.”

But after Bernie announced his candidacy for president in May 2015, Mrs. Clinton changed her tune. By November, she had suddenly realized that federal law had been severely hampering marijuana research and called for the herb to be moved out of Schedule I (no currently accepted medical use) of the Controlled Substances Act.

Even Donald Trump has evolved on the issue, thanks to Bernie’s insistent nudging. A few weeks after Bernie’s announcement, Trump made no mystery of his opinion on Colorado’s legalization efforts at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “I say it’s bad” said Trump. “Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it’s bad, and I feel strongly about it.”

But by that fall, Trump’s strong feelings had considerably weakened, when he told a gathered crowd in Nevada, “In terms of marijuana and legalization,” he said, “I think that should be a state issue, state by state.”

As laughable as these flip-flops may appear, they are downright progressive compared to the rhetoric of president Obama, who after riding a wave of young reform votes to office immediately began to downplay the legalization issue. Waves of petitions to legalize the herb flooded his much-touted “We the People” website, yet the supposedly progressive president took years before he could preface responses to legalization nags with anything but a laugh. Who’s laughing now?

After decades of listening to public figures endorse drug reform only after leaving the offices which could have enabled them to do something about it (former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, in an interview with PBS’s “Frontline,” being just the latest example), voters have finally been treated to a major public figure who isn’t afraid to spend political capital on doing the right thing. The senator from Vermont broke a taboo.


[This story first appeared in the print edition of Cannabis Now, issue 20. Subscribe to Cannabis Now Magazine today to save 50% and support independent, quality journalism.]

In October of 1991, when Bernie took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to decry the failed recklessness of the War on Drugs, the only other U.S. politician in the current presidential race to agree was Donald J. Trump. The field-tested Reagan-Bush drug war formula had worn in, the CIA had helped ship tons of cocaine to U.S. inner cities, Wall Street was king and greed was good. Times were great, dammit, and the brash New York real estate mogul had the gall to suggest that the U.S. legalize all drugs, tax their sale and use the proceeds to fund public education about the harms of drug abuse. It was without a doubt the brightest idea Trump ever proposed, and to his supreme credit he had the cajones to propose it at a time when such contrarian views were more unwelcome than they’d been in decades. It was a Sisyphean gamble at the height of the “Just Say No” discourse, and it didn’t take Trump long to flip-flop. Now Trump’s endorsement of a states’ rights position on legalization puts him in the progressive echelon of the Republican Party; but Bernie has remained true to his roots.

In 2001, Bernie co-sponsored the States Rights to Medical Marijuana Act, which would have ended federal raids against collectives in medical marijuana states. Have you heard of the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which for the past two years has done much the same thing through drug-war funding prohibitions? It just rode one more path to victory which Bernie originally blazed. Since then, Bernie has only stepped up his legalization leadership.

In 2010, he joined with other colleagues in Congress to pass the Fair Sentencing Act, which finally ended the racist 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. In 2014, he supported the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would have rolled back many of the worst incarceration excesses under federal mandatory minimum laws. It died in the Senate, but later the same year Obama’s Department of Justice released a memo directing all federal prosecutors to dial back their use of such laws. Coincidence? No, it’s just Bernie at work. Given a clear pattern of Bernie blazing new legislative trails years ahead of his time, it would seem that radical cannabis policy reform is finally on the horizon.

In 2015, Bernie introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, which would do pretty much exactly what its name says. It’s a different world. Now that every remaining viable candidate for president supports some kind of moderate federal cannabis reform, history is ready to happen. No, not Martin Luther King-level history or any truly revolutionary change; that’s the kind of reform Bernie dreams about, but gives the current Congressional consensus nightmares. It’s more likely to resemble the kind of reform endorsed by Hillary Clinton: move out of Schedule I, make it easier to research, stall for time while the lawyers working for your friends in the pharmaceutical industry try to guess whether strains are patentable. And that’s great – for the promise of new cancer treatments, for the plight of veterans stricken with PTSD, for child epileptics who, like the majority of their peers, don’t respond well enough to cannabis oil containing CBD but no THC. There are plenty of reasons why even moderate federal reforms are urgently needed, right now. But the actually historic reforms underway are happening at the level of the states – and here, too, Bernie has made his mark.

Until recently, elected officials have lagged far behind the will of the voters who enfranchise them. With one noteworthy exception, all of the states to pass medical marijuana reform in the first 10 years did so through the direct votes of residents on ballot initiatives. The exception was Hawaii, which in 2000 took the extraordinary step of passing a system to regulate medical marijuana through the state legislature, thus becoming the first state to provide a model for other state legislatures to follow. And eventually, follow they did; since 2010, 15 states have passed medical marijuana regulations through their legislative process. Hawaii’s example proved crucial, because otherwise the march of marijuana reform might have lost a lot of steam. It’s no accident that all of the earliest legalizing states have been in the western half of the country – states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon were chartered later in U.S. history and thus had the benefit of newer innovations in democratic process, like the ballot initiative (and, not coincidentally, women’s suffrage).

Among states east of the Mississippi, the options for direct citizen democracy are more limited, which is why a working model for legislative action has been so important. Without it, the prospects of getting reform in a state like, say, North Carolina – which has no citizen initiative process –would be minimal. Governor Pat McCrory signed Alabama’s medical marijuana bill into law in 2014. With adult use legalization passing in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Washington D.C. through citizen vote (and with eight more states likely voting on the question this fall), there is no question that these are historic times for cannabis reform. But, without an innovative state legislature willing to play the same role for adult use reform as the Hawaii legislature played for medical reform, the road to legalization could get lost in the mud. Twenty-six states allow for citizen ballot initiatives to go forward without legislative approval, and 23 states have passed medical marijuana reform; this means that sooner or later, a serious debate over the adult use of cannabis needs to migrate from the privacy of one’s home to the House of Representatives. That’s why a recent state Senate vote to legalize the adult consumption and cultivation of marijuana is so crucial, why it holds out hope to start a wave of new legalizations in the Northeast, in the Rust Belt, in the South. The bill passed the Senate by a handy margin and has the public support of the governor – of Vermont, Bernie’s home state.

The next president has yet to be chosen, but on the issue of legalization, Bernie stands out as the closest thing to a win we the people have got. For decades, Bernie has stacked up the kind of cred only obtained through experience taking principled stands for righteous causes, and that’s why, when he took action on cannabis legalization, it was just another example of Bernie Sanders changing the game. He has consistently shown real leadership – the kind of record few Americans can claim today. But on this issue, no leadership is really needed from our elected officials; the people have spoken, time and again. All that is needed is for officials to follow. So thank you, Bernie, for showing all the rest how it’s done. As for everyone else – we’re waiting.


A patron holds a "Future to Believe in" poster in support of Bernie Sanders and his message of legalizing marijuana.

Originally published in issue 20 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE

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