This week in a major public appearance, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders forcefully came out against federal marijuana prohibition, highlighting the significant racial disparity in marijuana arrests. “In my view the time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana,” Sanders said. “In my view states should have the right to regulate marijuana the same way state and local laws now govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco.”
Sanders wants marijuana to be treated similarly to the way alcohol is treated under the 21st Amendment, with its legal status and the surrounding regulations mostly determined at a state level. This new position makes Sanders the most pro-marijuana reform candidate in the presidential race and is a huge development for two reasons.
First, if Sanders actually won the presidency, he would have significant powers to unilaterally change federal marijuana policy. Drug policy is one of the areas where the executive branch has a substantial amount of control. Not only does the president have broad discretion to decide how to enforce current laws, but the Controlled Substance Act actually provides the attorney general, who is appointed by the president, with a way to change the federal scheduling of any drug without needing to go through Congress.
Second, even if Sanders doesn’t win the election, his public support for ending federal marijuana prohibition shifts the entire political debate on the issue. A big part of why Sanders is running is to draw attention to and raise support for issues he cares about. Every time Sanders takes a new position that is popular with both the general public and the Democratic base, it puts pressure on all the other candidates to respond. Now that Sanders has come out for allowing states to legalize marijuana, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is faced with the uncomfortable question of why she has yet to endorse a policy supported by two thirds of the Democratic base.