Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called for ending the prohibition on marijuana Wednesday evening at an event for college students at George Mason University in Northern Virginia.
“In my view, the time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana,” Sanders said to cheers. ”In my view, states should have the right to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws now govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco.”
It would be a dramatic departure from decades of federal drug policy. And while Sanders stopped short of calling for the full legalization of marijuana, he is now closer to it than any other candidate in either party.
It’s also a bit of an evolution for Sanders, who said in an interview with Yahoo! earlier this year that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that can lead to heroin and cocaine use.
Sanders’ plan essentially leaves drug policy to the states. They could keep their prohibition or legalize marijuana if they choose, without interference from the federal government. That would mean marijuana businesses could have full access to banks and other financial institutions, and individuals would be immune from arrest and prosecution for simple possession. However, he said he would still allow federal law enforcement officers to arrest and prosecute illegal marijuana traffickers. Today, people and businesses face prosecution by the federal government, even in places like Colorado where state law have legalized the drug.
Sanders framed the issue as one of racial and civil rights. “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,” he said. “We are spending about $80 billion a year in federal state and local taxpayer dollars to lock people up. $80 billion a year.”
The federal government classifies marijuana as a “Schedule 1” drug, the highest level and the same as heroin. Sanders called that “absurd” and proposed removing marijuana from the federal government’s scheduling system entirely.
He cited statistics from the FBI recording that 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2014 – about one per minute. He added that between 2001 and 2010, there were 8 million marijuana arrests, almost 9 in 10 of which were for possession, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. “Our criminal justice system is broken, and we need major changes in our criminal justice system – including changes in drug laws,” he said.
In addition to addressing thousands of students at George Mason, the forum was simulcast to 250 pro-Sanders student groups in all 50 states across the country, according to the campaign.
“If Sen. Sanders follows through on these comments with legislation, it will be the first time in history that a bill will be introduced in the U.S. Senate to end federal marijuana prohibition,” said Tom Angell of the pro-reform group Marijuana Majority, which does not endorse candidates. “Poll after poll shows that a growing majority of Americans support legalization, so it makes sense that elected officials are finally starting to see the value in calling for real and comprehensive changes to failed marijuana laws.”
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has says states should be allowed to experiment with legalization and medical marijuana, but has said more study is needed. “I think we’re just at the beginning, but I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana,” she said at the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. “Therefore we need more states, cities and the federal government to begin to address this.”
Challenger Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, decriminalized the drug as governor (though he opposed legalization) and has called for moving marijuana to “Schedule 2,” a less severe federal classification, along with other reforms.