Bernie Sanders Urges End to Federal Pot Prohibition | Off Message

Bernie Sanders Urges End to Federal Pot Prohibition


Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did not treat his audience at Virginia's George Mason University Wednesday night to a bongo-bopping rendition of Ben Harper's "Burn One Down."

But he did tell them that he feels their right to burn — marijuana, that is.

For the first time, the Vermont independent urged the federal government to remove pot from its list of controlled substances, calling such a move "long overdue." Sanders did not go so far as to call for nationwide legalization of marijuana, but he said that states should be free to regulate the drug as they do alcohol and tobacco. 

"In the year 2015, it is time for the federal government to allow states to go forward as they best choose," he said. "It is time to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. It is time to end the arrests of so many people and the destruction of so many lives for possessing marijuana."

Sanders framed his proposal as part of a wider push to reform the nation's criminal justice system, arguing that low-level drug offenses can have far-reaching consequences.

"A criminal record can mean not only time in jail, but a criminal record makes it harder for a person to get a job, harder for a person to get public benefits, harder for a person to even get housing," he said. "A criminal record stays with a person for his or her entire life. It is a serious business."

Sanders, who has struggled to win the support of African-American voters, also argued that "there is a racial component to this situation."

"Although about the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana, a black person is almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person," he said.

While removing pot from the Drug Enforcement Administration's list of Schedule 1 drugs would not legalize it, the move "would be a big deal for marijuana policy," according to the Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham. Marijuana businesses in states that have legalized the drug would be permitted to use the banking system and apply for tax breaks, and they would be free from the threat of federal prosecution. 

Voters in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska have passed ballot measures legalizing pot in their states. Vermont, which decriminalized the drug two years ago, could become the first in the country to legalize it by legislative action next winter.

Sanders has been inching toward — and hinting at — Wednesday's announcement for months. At the first Democratic presidential debate two weeks ago, he said that if he were a resident of Nevada, he "suspect[ed]" he would vote in favor of legalization on an upcoming ballot question. Last week, he told ABC talk show host Jimmy Kimmel that he was "not unfavorably disposed to moving toward the legalization of marijuana."

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