Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his marijuana legalization plan on Thursday, taking aim at the “destructive war on drugs” and large cannabis corporations.
Marijuana legalization has long been part of Sanders’ policy platform. He introduced the first standalone marijuana legalization bill to the Senate in 2015 and also was the first major presidential candidate to call for marijuana legalization in 2016. His plan proposes criminal justice reform measures such as expunging past cannabis convictions and proposals to give people with convictions financial help to launch cannabis businesses.
“[The war on drugs] has disproportionately targeted people of color and ruined the lives of millions of Americans,” Sanders said in a statement. “When we’re in the White House, we’re going to end the greed and corruption of the big corporations and make sure that Americans hit hardest by the war on drugs will be the first to benefit from legalization.”
How does he plan to legalize marijuana?
Sanders‘ proposes to deschedule marijuana, which would completely remove it from its classification under the Controlled Substances Act as highly dangerous and without any medicinal value.
Marijuana is now classified in the most restrictive category under federal drug laws — Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act — along with heroin and LSD.
Sanders would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act through the attorney general by executive order within the first 100 days of his presidency. He would also nominate agency leaders for the Justice Department and Health and Human Services who would work toward this goal.
How would his plan address criminal justice concerns?
Sanders would direct federal and state authorities to expunge all cannabis convictions and provide resources to automate the process.
A lack of funding and technology has plagued efforts to automatically expunge cannabis convictions at the state level. Sanders’ plan would provide federal dollars to states to partner with organizations to automate the process — similar to local partnerships that exist in California and Illinois with the non-profit Code for America.
And if the states take more than two years to expunge the records, Sanders’ plan would provide an administrative remedy to those seeking relief from state authorities.
His administration would also create a clemency board independent of the Department of Justice. While President Barack Obama granted clemency to more people than any other president in recent history, the program was plagued by Justice Department dysfunction, a report from the inspector general found. Sanders hopes to make it easier for individuals to navigate the clemency process.
What about social equity?
Sanders' plan proposes several measures in hopes of preventing large cannabis companies from primarily reaping the economic benefits of the growing industry.
His proposal would ban tobacco corporations from entering the marijuana industry — although an American tobacco company already has invested billions in the Canadian cannabis market. It would also implement market share caps to prevent consolidation.
Marijuana producers would have incentives to start cooperatives or non-profits instead of for-profit corporations.
The plan would divert marijuana tax revenue toward supporting business development by individuals harmed by marijuana enforcement, including a $10 billion USDA grant program to help those who have been arrested on marijuana charges to start their own farming operations.
The plan goes even further than that.
In addition to setting aside funds for entrepreneurs who have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana enforcement, Sanders' proposal would route money for community reinvestment that goes beyond the cannabis industry.
A $10 billion development fund would provide grants to communities disproportionately affected by drug enforcement for other types of services, like “innovative overdose prevention initiatives.”
The plan proposes a $20 billion grant program within the Minority Business Development Agency and $10 billion in grants for operations with majority ownership by those negatively affected by drug enforcement. While these grant programs would aim to help individuals get into the marijuana industry, they are not limited to marijuana businesses.
Where do other candidates stand on this issue?
Pretty much everyone in the Democratic field supports some sort of federal legalization of marijuana — except for Joe Biden.
Democratic candidates Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) have introduced similar federal legislation that would address criminal justice reforms and social equity through marijuana legalization proposals known as the Marijuana Justice Act and the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, respectively. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has sponsored bipartisan legislation with Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner known as the STATES Act, which would allow states to set their own marijuana policies.
Biden has proposed “decriminalizing” cannabis while moving it to Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act.
The plan has something for pro- and anti-legalization advocates alike.
Cannabis advocates have been split on how to approach marijuana legalization in Congress lately. Some believe an incrementalist approach — like advancing legislation that would allow banks to do business with cannabis companies without fear of federal punishment — is the best way forward. The industry has struggled for access to financial services because of marijuana's federal classification.
Others argue that any sort of marijuana reform should include comprehensive measures to address criminal justice issues. Sanders’ plan includes many provisions that such advocates demand, including expungements, community reinvestment programs, and resources for marginalized entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, anti-legalization activists often warn of the commercialization of cannabis and the specter of another Big Tobacco-like industry. Sanders' proposal not only bans large tobacco companies and creates incentives for non-profits, but contains provisions that would ban products and packaging that target young people.