While mention of marijuana at the third Republican primary debate in Colorado last night was limited to a throwaway jape from Texas Senator Ted Cruz about pot brownies and a meandering statement of opposition to cannabis legalization from Ohio Governor John Kasich, Bernie Sanders was addressing the issue at a clambake for college students in an uncommonly broad-minded fashion for a major presidential candidate.
"The time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana," he declared to enthusiastic applause from the young crowd at George Mason University in northern Virginia, becoming the first viable candidate to ever say so. "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."
The sentiment builds on the Vermont senator's previously expressed support for pot regulation at the first Democratic debate earlier this month, when he signaled his endorsement of a ballot initiative in Nevada to legalize marijuana.
"I suspect I would vote yes. And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses," Sanders remarked at the debate. "We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana."
With legalization efforts underway in several states following the success of ballot drives in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska, the issue has been the focus of heightened discussion recently, complementing calls among lawmakers and prospective presidential candidates for criminal justice reform.
On Monday night, Sanders said that harsh drug laws have contributed heavily to America's mass incarceration crisis. Of the more than 200,000 Americans currently locked up in federal prison, nearly half of them are serving time for drug offenses.
"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. "Our criminal justice system is broken, and we need major changes in our criminal justice system — including changes in drug laws."
In the United States, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance along with LSD, heroin, and other drugs that have no perceived medical value in the eyes of the government, and is banned under federal law. A Department of Justice memorandum issued last year, however, essentially said that it would take a hands-off approach to enforcement in states that have voted to legalize pot, so long as they follow a few federal guidelines, such as not using public land for cultivation.
Sanders's proposal would help clear up "many elements of this conflict that still exist between state and federal marijuana laws," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).
"It's the most significant step policy-wise that's been proposed to date from candidates," he added.
Lifting the federal ban would not only allow banks to legally provide financial services to pot businesses, but also help iron out other less discussed issues that have surfaced in states like Colorado which has chosen to legalize the drug, including forced evictions of medical marijuana patients from federal housing and bans on medical marijuana patients being able to own guns or receive organ transplants.
"Right now the federal government is not going into Colorado and arresting and prosecuting people involved in the marijuana industry, but at the same time if you're a bank in Colorado, you understand that these businesses are in fact violating federal law," Riffle said. "Being very risk averse, banks are not going to want to provide financial services to these businesses. That could change if we change federal law."
Lifting the federal ban on marijuana would also de-schedule it altogether from the Drug Enforcement Administration's Controlled Substances Act, which would pave the way for increased medical research and medicinal use. Currently 23 states have legalized medical marijuana in some form, yet funding and support for clinical and research studies, including ascertaining its potential benefits in treating or alleviating the symptoms of cancer, PTSD, and a wide variety of other diseases and disorders, remains limited because of the federal ban.
When Democratic frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked in the last debate whether she was prepared to take a position on the legalization of marijuana, she said she was not.
"I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today," she said. "I do support the use of medical marijuana, and I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we're going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief."
But such research is stymied by marijuana's federal classification as a Schedule I substance, and Clinton has not indicated whether she supports de-scheduling the drug in order to grant researchers more freedom to study it. Now that Sanders has staked out a definitive position, she will be pressured to follow suit.
"What Bernie's talking about is treating marijuana essentially the way we treat alcohol and tobacco, which is to say it's a drug, it's a vice and should be regulated as such, but we're going to let states deal with it in a way that people in those states think is most appropriate," Riffle said. "We're not going to take a one-size-fits-all federal approach to all states."
Sanders's proposal adds to the growing number of voices in politics — both left and right — that have lent support to loosening restrictions on pot. Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is among a crowded field of candidates vying for the GOP nomination in 2016, has co-sponsored a bill to end medical marijuana prohibition nationwide and has vocally supported sentencing reform for recreational pot users. But the MPP has given Paul an A- grade because he still hasn't taken a firm position on legalization, despite speaking about the need to decriminalize the drug.
Paul's position is nevertheless a marked contrast from the position taken by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
"If you're getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it," Christie said while campaigning in New Hampshire this summer. "As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws."
Other Republican presidential candidates have taken stances on marijuana based on traditional conservative ideals of limiting the role of big government and allowing states more autonomy. Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush have all indicated that they would not use federal resources to overturn tax and regulation laws in states that have already voted to legalize pot, nor would they use federal law to nullify state policy.
But some advocates believe that with the exploding growth of the industry and increasing support for legalization in the country, Republicans need to begin taking the question seriously.
David Dinenberg, the CEO of Kind Financial, a financial services firm for the legal marijuana industry, said that beyond a few "sideways comments about gateway drugs and juvenile pot jokes," there was very little substantive discussion on the topic at the Republican debate last night in Colorado, where he noted that the regulation and taxation of "cannabis has markedly increased the state's economy."
After bringing in $44 million in marijuana tax revenues in 2014, this year Colorado is on pace to collect $125 million. The drug has already supplanted alcohol sales as a source of government revenue.
Within the Democratic field, former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed a bill decriminalizing marijuana in his state while in office, though he said that he did not want Maryland to be "one those states that serves as a laboratory for legalization of marijuana." He also supports rescheduling weed from the top tier of drugs on the DEA's list to a Schedule II substance alongside other drugs like codeine and oxycodone. Yet while Clinton and O'Malley have decent grades from the MPP (a B and a C-, respectively), their positions fall far short of the position adopted by Sanders.
"The difference is O'Malley and Clinton are basically reacting to changing polls," Riffle said, "but Sanders is taking a leadership position on the issue."