Vermont independent senator and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders Wednesday filed legislation in the Senate that would end federal marijuana prohibition by removing -- not rescheduling -- marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances. It is the first bill ever introduced in the Senate to end the federal war on marijuana.
A similar bill was introduced in the House by Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) in 2011, but it never went anywhere.
Two years later, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) provided a model for the Sanders bill with a bill he proposed in 2013, and reintroduced this year as the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act (HR 1013), although there are slight differences. The Polis bill would shift authority over marijuana from the DEA to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, while the Sanders bill would not, and the Polis bill would amend federal alcohol laws to include provisions for shipping marijuana, while the Sanders bill would not.
"Just as alcohol prohibition failed in the 1920s, it's clear marijuana prohibition is failing today," Polis said in a statement. "For decades, the federal ban on marijuana has wasted tax dollars, impeded our criminal justice system, lined the pockets of drug cartels, and trampled on states’ ability to set their own public health laws. Today's introduction of the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act in the Senate is a huge step forward in the movement to enact the commonsense drug laws needed to grow our economy and restore fairness to our justice system."
Sanders filed the bill one week after he first proposed reclassifying marijuana during a campaign speech at George Mason University.
"In the United States we have 2.2 million people in jail today, more than any other country. And we're spending about $80 billion a year to lock people up. We need major changes in our criminal justice system -- including changes in drug laws," Sanders said. "Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That's wrong. That has got to change."
No other presidential contender, Democratic or Republican, has staked out a position as advanced on marijuana legalization as Sanders, although Congress is proving increasingly receptive to marijuana reform measures.Several spending amendments aimed at blocking federal pursuit of state-legal marijuana operations have already passed the House and the Senate Appropriations Committee this year, and Senate Republicans have included spending amendments in their recent "minibus" spending package, including measures to bar the DEA from interfering with state medical marijuana laws, bar the Treasury Department from stopping banks from providing services to marijuana business, and to require the Veterans Administration to allow vets to use medical marijuana.
Also, earlier this year, Sens. Corey Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the CARERS Act (S. 683), which would legalize the medicinal use of marijuana.
The increasing acceptance of marijuana reforms in Congress comes as the American public also increasingly accepts the idea. Public opinion polls now consistently show majority support for pot legalization, including a Gallup poll last month that had 58% for legalization.
Marijuana reformers are liking what they are hearing from the Sanders camp.
"The science is clear that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and that should be reflected in our nation's marijuana policy," said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Sen. Sanders is simply proposing that we treat marijuana similarly to how we treat alcohol at the federal level, leaving most of the details to the states. It is a commonsense proposal that is long overdue in the Senate."
"Clearly Bernie Sanders has looked at the polls showing voter support for marijuana legalization," said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Action, the political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Marijuana reform was already moving forward in Congress but we expect this bill to give reform efforts a big boost."
"Many legislators and citizens are still hesitant to move forward with marijuana legalization initiatives in their home states because of the federal ban, which may contradict state law, making both laws difficult to follow or enforce, and making banking transactions all but impossible." said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a criminal justice group working to legalize marijuana.
Four states -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- and the District of Columbia have already legalized marijuana, with another handful expected to do so next year. And 23 states already have medical marijuana laws.
"As more states legalize marijuana for medical or non-medical use the pressure to change federal law will continue to grow," Bill Piper, director of national affairs at Drug Policy Action said. "There is a clear bipartisan majority in Congress for letting states set their own marijuana policies."
(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)