For the first time in American history, a leading presidential candidate has announced his support for bringing prohibition to an end. It was during the last 30 minutes of last night’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas when, in response to which way he would vote for a marijuana initiative slated for Nevada in 2016, Bernie Sanders told the entire nation that he supports the legalization of cannabis because of its dreadful role in perpetuating the drug war and all of the problems that has caused for the people of the United States.
“I suspect I would vote yes. And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana,” he said. “I think we have to think through this war on drugs, which has done an enormous amount of damage. We need to rethink our criminal justice system and we’ve got a lot of work to do in that area.”
It was the moment that many pot reformists had been waiting for, especially since Sanders, at least up until this point in the game, has pretty much only suggested that “maybe it’s time we began to rethink” the drug war and take steps to end privatized prisons. In fact, the Vermont senator has not really taken such a vocal position on ending the scourge of the nation’s anti-pot policies since around 1972.
Although Sander’s comments did not stray too much from the baseline stance he has kept since announcing his candidacy, his simple use of the word “yes” on a nationally televised presidential event when asked about marijuana reform marks a level of progress in American politics that, just a few years ago, would have been considered career suicide.
To put this more in perspective, it should be noted that not even Republican presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul, whose name appears on a federal bill known as the CARERS Act, which seeks to legalize medical marijuana nationwide, has had the guts to vocally express his support for the full legalization of marijuana. Furthermore, Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority says that not a single presidential candidate during the 2008 election would dare even voice support for simple decriminalization measures, and many were even apprehensive to side with castrating the DEA’s agenda against legal medical marijuana patients.
“Legalization is at the forefront of mainstream American politics, and politicians are starting to treat it as such,” Angell said.
While rumors suggested that Hillary Clinton was on the verge of casting some semblance of support on the issue of marijuana reform, she ended up sticking to her prohibitionary guns last night during the debate. In fact, Clinton flat out said “No,” she would not support Nevada’s initiative to legalize recreational marijuana.
“I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today,” she said. “I do support the use of medical marijuana, and I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we’re going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief.”
However, Clinton agreed with Sanders in regards to overhauling the American criminal justice system to prevent marijuana users from going to prison, which sort of clarified that she does not fully understand the capacity in which pot prohibition lends itself to the incarceration problems in this country.
“We have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana,” she said. “Therefore, we need more states, cities, and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don’t have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.”
As Reason’s Jacob Sullum points out, although marijuana makes up over 80 percent of the drug arrests in the U.S., very few people are actually going to prison for minor possession. In most cases, the average stoner busted for simple possession does not even spend that much time in their local jail. The problem exists in locking up those associated with the black market, including people involved with illegal cultivation and street sales. The United States continues to spend millions of tax dollars every year to lock people up for doing what Colorado, Washington and Oregon have now turned into a lucrative and legal industry.
Bernie Sanders has without a doubt become the candidate of choice among nationwide marijuana reform groups. Hours after the debate, Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, the group instrumental in helping Colorado legalize the nation’s first recreational pot market, said “the people have typically led the politicians on this issue, and finally we’re seeing a presidential candidate who appears to have caught up with them.”