Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has long be an opponent of the war on drugs, and an outspoken critic of the many harms it causes. He was one of the first major presidential candidates to come out in favor of cannabis legalization, and has introduced bills in the senate to remove cannabis from the list of schedule 1 drugs under the Controlled Substances Act.
Today he announced he is joining the Marijuana Justice Act, a broad ranging bill that aim to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and reverse decades long inequalities in the enforcement of drug laws. The Act was originally introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) in August of 2017. Since senator Booker introduced the bill, a number of Democratic lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
The bill has three main components. First, it removes cannabis from the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, where it is currently classified under the schedule 1 designation. According to DEA.gov “Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The list of schedule 1 drugs includes heroin, MDMA, LSD, and peyote. By removing cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, the Marijuana Justice Act would allow states to enact full legalization, without any fear of interference from the federal government. It would also presumably remove many of the barriers currently hindering the legal cannabis industry in states that have already passed legalization laws, such as the inability of cannabis businesses to use most banks and financial institutions.
Second, the bill would withhold federal funding from states that continue to criminalize cannabis and continue to have disproportionate rates of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration between whites and minorities. Finally, it would create a federal Treasury fund to support reinvestment and rebuilding of low-income communities via the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Senator Sanders joined senator Booker in a Facebook Live video to announce his decision to co-sponsor the bill. They discussed a range of issues relating to the war on drugs, criminal justice, and the disproportionate impact drug laws have on poor and minority communities. Senator Booker pointed out the hypocrisy that many senators and congressman admit to smoking cannabis, and that 2 of the last 3 presidents have admitted to using drugs more serious than cannabis.
They touched on the 700,000 people arrested last year for cannabis possession, and the 40,000 collateral consequences that people with a drug conviction face. Discussing the fact that in some states, those with drug convictions aren’t allowed to vote, senator Booker brought up that fact that in Florida, 1 in 5 african americans cannot vote. “What we’re talking about here is not only ‘criminal justice’ in the narrow sense, you’re talking about the destruction of democratic rights,” senator Sanders replied.
Bernie also challenged the very concept of drug prohibition in general, saying “I think people increasingly understand that prohibition didn’t work in the 1920s, it’s not gonna work now.”
Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, was interviewed by Forbes, and commented on Sanders’ announcement “Leaders in the Democratic Party are increasingly recognizing that leading the charge on legalization is not only good policy, but good politics. The constituencies which the party claims to stand for are the ones who have most felt the weight of prohibition and the lifelong consequences of prohibition.”