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Pot Matters: Bernie Sanders and Marijuana

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Bernie Sanders really wants to be president. He’s doing everything he can to turn out the youth vote, and this includes coming around to accepting the proposition that the nation’s marijuana laws have to change. 

So far so good. But his positions on marijuana, while promising, are incomplete, ill-considered and a bit too convenient given the context of the Democratic primary race for the party’s nomination.

In other words, there is something disturbing about Bernie Sander’s positions on pot. The word that comes to mind is patronizing.

This observation will upset a lot of Sander’s supporters, especially those in the progressive community that support the legalization of cannabis and revel in Sander’s embrace of the issue. But here’s a guy whose political brand is based on advancing radical solutions and programs in areas of economic justice, whose brand is based on doing the right thing rather than bowing to political pragmatism, but when it comes to marijuana, his positions are minimal, gradualist and carefully couched.

It takes a while to find Sander’s positions on marijuana on his web page. They are buried in his section on racial justice. As a matter of addressing legal violence, Sanders states that “we need to take marijuana off the federal government’s list of outlawed drugs” and that “we need to allow people in states which legalize marijuana to be able to fully participate in the banking system and not be subject to federal prosecution for using pot.” He shouldn’t be referring to “pot,” (cannabis would be better) but that’s the least of it.

On cannabis legalization, Sander’s positions are not radical, they're minimalist. Radical means going for a core solution. Why won’t he just come out and acknowledge that "we need to legalize marijuana nationally, throughout the country, and allow people to grow their own.”? 

Here’s why—political calculation. Just like any other political candidate, he wants to be careful. Or he hasn’t taken the time to fully understand this issue. Either way, he wants to send signals to marijuana legalization supporters to attract their votes without actually committing himself to supporting the goals and objectives of legalization. This would be promising coming from most other politicians, but not from the guy who is promising free college and Medicare for all.

In fairness to Sanders, he has recently said that “it is time to tax and regulate marijuana,” and to end arrests; that it should not be a federal crime; and that marijuana should be removed from the Controlled Substances Act. But as characterized by Kristen Gwynne for HIGH TIMES, “Sanders has positioned himself as a non-interventionist presidential candidate who instead supports federal policies that would allow state experiments to take move forward without being bogged down by federal prohibition.” 

Once again, safe, cautious, minimalist, pragmatic… and given his radical stance on so many other issues, patronizing.  

What about people getting arrested in states that don’t legalize or that don’t have medical marijuana laws? And why isn’t marijuana legalization given its proper place as a distinctive and significant issue on the Sander’s website? Because, as an issue, the legalization of cannabis is treated by the Sanders campaign as useful rhetoric designed to attract votes rather than a significant and urgent policy issue deserving of leadership.

It’s great to have presidential candidates pandering to the marijuana legalization vote. 

Furthermore, Bernie Sanders is by all accounts—and based on a long record of public service—a man of integrity. There should be no doubt about the sincerity of his positions. But given his integrity, the sincerity of his positions and his positions on other progressive issues, Sanders must come to terms with the high standards he has set for himself and accept that supporters of cannabis legalization have every right to hold him to a higher standard than that of other candidates.

Gradualist positions, careful positions, run a risk of institutionalizing half-measures and transforming inadequate policy measures into consensus solutions. They are neither satisfactory nor will they be sufficient to resolve the problems created by prohibition.

Descheduling is progress, but not a solution. State experimentation is progress, but not a solution. Giving the marijuana industry access to the banking system is progress, but not a solution. 

The solution is legalization for the entire nation and a guarantee of personal cultivation. That’s what millennials want to hear from a presidential candidate. That would be leadership. And that’s what the Sander’s campaign needs to advance, if they want the full support of young voters.

(Photo Courtesy of Chimes Calvin College)

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