Bernie Sanders's Not-So-Radical Marijuana Idea

The Democratic candidate says states should be allowed to set their own laws on weed—in other words, that federal law should match what’s already happening across the nation.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Two candidates nodded to liberalizing standards about marijuana in the United States on Wednesday—one expected, one a little more surprising. In the latter case, Senator Ted Cruz offered, during the GOP debate, to buy CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla “some famous Colorado brownies.”

Meanwhile, across the country in Virginia, Senator Bernie Sanders called for the federal government to lift its prohibition on marijuana. Though Sanders is sometimes caricatured as an unreconstructed dope-smoking ’60s hippie (and even though his first name is perfect for pot puns), he says he only ever smoked twice, didn’t like it, and didn’t get high. But Sanders has long called for decriminalization, and he took a step further in remarks at George Mason University Wednesday.

“The time is long overdue for us to take marijuana off the federal government’s list of outlawed drugs,” he said. “In my view, states should have the right to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws now govern sales of alcohol and tobacco.”

What’s interesting about Sanders’s proposal is that it is at once radical and at the same time would simply ratify much of what’s already happening across the United States, where states have already begun liberalizing laws without waiting for Washington’s consent, and voter support for legalization is now well past the 50-percent mark.

Sanders’s call was hailed by marijuana campaigners, and it’s the strongest statement any presidential candidate in this race has made on the issue. Republican Senator Rand Paul has called for ending bans on medical marijuana. Hillary Clinton also has not suggested removing pot from the federal schedule of substances.

As The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham writes, lifting the federal ban on getting lifted would have a major impact on how “cannabusiness” works. Dispensaries and distributors generally can’t get access to banks, even in states where weed is legal, because the banks are wary of falling afoul of federal laws. That’s a huge headache for the proprietors. Even though they’re well within local laws, they have to do all their business in cash, which also makes them susceptible to robbery. (A great Planet Money episode goes into more detail on all the complications.) Marijuana businesses would be able to apply for tax breaks, too.

On a regulatory level, removing the federal ban would allow research into the effects of marijuana, which are not completely understood, to expand. And it would save taxpayers a nice stack of cash, since the Drug Enforcement Agency would ends its expensive and generally ineffective marijuana-eradication program.

In some surprising ways, though, de-scheduling weed would just make federal law match the lived reality in many places—after all, recreational use is already permitted in Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska, as well as D.C. So far, these states and the ones that allow medical marijuana exist in an uneasy truce with the federal government. What Sanders is proposing would make many temporary measures currently in place permanent.

The Obama Justice Department has essentially said it won’t bother recreational-use states as long as liberalization doesn’t lead to minors getting drugs, widespread violence, and the like. (The Justice Department is the cool RA in your dorm who won’t assert her authority as long as things stay under control.) But that’s not legally binding, so Washington could change its mind at any time. Several Republicans, including Chris Christie, have vowed to reverse that process if elected, basically voiding the recreational-use laws. As of last year, the DEA is also not supposed to be busting medical-marijuana providers, though a federal judge recently reprimanded the agency for doing so anyway.

Even as federal laws describe a regime that doesn’t practically exist any more, more and more states are taking up legalization. On Tuesday, Ohio voters are considering two conflicting marijuana measures. An amazing 17 more states are likely to vote in 2016.

Sanders is often accused of backing radical policies, and he will retort that when Americans are polled on specific issues, majorities tend to agree with him on matters from taxation to family leave. In other words, what appears radical on face is actually mainstream. His new stance on marijuana certainly fits that mold.

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