With just two days to go before the Iowa caucus, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is pledging to immediately legalize marijuana in all 50 states if he is elected to the White House.
“We will end the destructive war on drugs,” the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said at rally in Cedar Rapids. “On my first day in office through executive order, we will legalize marijuana in every state in this country.”
Sanders emphasized it would be important for his administration to end cannabis prohibition in a way that helps communities harmed by the drug war’s enforcement.
“We will move forward to expunge the records of those arrested for possession of marijuana,” he said. “And we will make certain that the legalized marijuana industry is not controlled by a handful of corporations but that those people—the African-American community, the Latino community, the Native American community—those people who have suffered the most will get help in order to make money through a legalized marijuana industry.”
It’s far from clear that Sanders as president would actually be able to accomplish unilateral federal legalization of marijuana, let alone end prohibition in every state or get it done just hours after he is sworn in.
The executive branch does have authority under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to reclassify cannabis without further action from Congress, but the details of the process involve steps by the attorney general and the health and human services secretary—Sanders designees unlikely to be installed on his “first day.” Current law also means that international drug treaties could complicate moves by an administration to deschedule marijuana from the CSA entirely. And, when it comes to enacting legalization in every state, there’s not much a president can do to force the repeal of local criminalization laws.
Sanders also mentioned his intention to swiftly legalize marijuana and take other executive actions at an earlier campaign stop on Saturday afternoon, joking that he would tell his wife on inauguration day that “I’ll be home late, my dear.”
Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that top Sanders campaign aides included federal legalization of cannabis in a list of possible executive orders to take place in early 2021 should he win the presidency.
In 2015, during his last campaign for the White House, Sanders filed the Senate’s first-ever marijuana descheduling legislation and became the first major presidential candidate to back legalization.
While in 2020 Sanders has issued one of the boldest cannabis-focused plans in the field—previously pledging to accomplish federal legalization within 100 days—he hasn’t gone as far as some rival candidates have when it comes to ending the criminalization of other drugs.
While the senator does often note that he supports broadly “ending the war on drugs,” he has said he’s “not there yet” when pressed about formally decriminalizing other substances.
Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, on the other hand, included decriminalizing possession of all drugs in his racial justice and mental health plans. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), meanwhile, said this month that she supports legalizing and regulating currently illicit drugs.
Entrepreneurs Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer, also presidential contenders, back decriminalizing opioids as a harm reduction measure. Yang also says he would legalize therapeutic use of psilocybin mushrooms for military veterans.