The year is 1996.
14-year-old Pete Buttigieg is in his last year of middle school. Cory Booker is finishing his Juris Doctor at Yale Law. Elizabeth Warren is a registered Republican, earning an annual salary of nearly $300,000 as a Harvard professor. Kamala Harris is at the tail-end of her first prosecutor job in Alameda County, beginning a climb up the California Justice Department that will culminate in her election as the state’s first African American and first woman attorney general.
Delaware Senator Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Caucus on International Narcotics Control, wants parents to know that 1990s weed is “much more dangerous to their children than it was to them.” He says it’s “like comparing the buckshot in a shotgun shell to a laser-guided missile.”
Where is Bernie Sanders?
The same place he was yesterday, almost 24 years later: advocating for sensible marijuana policy.
Released at 4:20 PM Thursday, the far-reaching plan for the legalization of marijuana under President Sanders shows that the Senator from Vermont – like the rest of the Democratic party – has continued to evolve in response to the modern political dynamic around both cannabis and social justice.
What’s in the Bernie Sanders marijuana plan?
Sanders’ plan hinges on three broad steps:
- Immediately legalize marijuana through executive action
Although Bernie does call for the passing of legislation for legalization, it explicitly states, “president Bernie will not wait for Congress to act.” Sanders’ plan would nominate an attorney general, HHS secretary, and DEA administrator “who will all work to aggressively end the drug war and legalize marijuana.”
- Vacate and expunge all past marijuana-related convictions
This process, based on a similar one in California that used software to automatically identify and expunge marijuana convictions, would be carried out at the state level with federal funding. It calls for the creation of an independent clemency board to expedite the clearing of convictions. State AGs would have one year to appeal or object eligible expungements.
- Invest marijuana revenue into communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs and prevent the industry from turning into Big Tobacco
This is where the Sanders campaign truly flexes its left-leaning muscle. The plan will invest $30 billion into grants for entrepreneurs of color and businesses owned by people convicted for marijuana or living in disproportionately impacted areas. $10 billion is the stated goal for a USDA program that will help individuals arrested for marijuana offenses start rural and urban cannabis farms. Also mentioned in the plan are funds for bilingual outreach in immigrant communities and the establishment of community programs to combat opioid addiction.
What does the Bernie Sanders cannabis plan mean for the Democratic primary?
Despite a high-profile endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Sanders’ campaign has seen better days. In a September feature bluntly titled, “Bernie Sanders is in Trouble,” POLITICO Magazine points out that Bernie has fallen to third behind Biden and Warren and has shuffled campaign staff in Iowa and New Hampshire. And that was before a minor heart attack kept him off the campaign for several days in October.
It’s too early to gauge the plan’s impact on the race at large, but there are three things this ambitious cannabis plan says about the candidate and his place in the primary:
- Bernie is separating himself to the left by policy, if not recognition
Though Elizabeth Warren cut her progressive teeth on ideas like canceling student debt and increasing taxes on the rich, she has also called herself a “capitalist to [the] bones.” As recently as 2013, she was slamming a primary opponent for supporting cannabis. Warren may be a more public icon of liberal progressivism this cycle, but this plan cements Bernie as the candidate furthest to the left. Whether that helps him catch her in the polls remains to be seen.
- Bernie is not afraid of executive action
President Obama’s executive actions were frequently criticized by Republicans, who famously compared him to a “king or emperor.” Through a remarkable combination of narcissism, deceit and astounding incompetence, Obama’s successor in the White House has taken executive action to a frightening new level.
As support for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office ticks upwards and voices in the media call for executive oversight, it’s interesting that Sen. Sanders does not shy away from promising strong unilateral action – perhaps appealing to swing voters who admired Trump’s “strength” in 2016.
- Bernie seems to be the only one who gets the full repercussions of cannabis reform
As advocates and those in it understand, the marijuana industry is much more than a way to meet the demand for weed at scale. The legalization of a simple plant that has led to nightmarish ordeals for communities of color is an opportunity to bring much-needed equality to business and law enforcement.
Almost every 2020 Democratic candidate has been open about supporting federal legalization of marijuana. But with specific mention of grants to help rural farmers, entrepreneurs of color, and immigrants understand and capitalize on legalization, Sanders’ plan goes furthest to ensure that legalization also brings economic prosperity for those hurt the most by prohibition.
He may not catch Warren or Biden in the polls. But with this sweeping plan for legalization of marijuana and regulation of the industry, Bernie Sanders has given us the first glimpse of an attempt at federal legalization that leverages the full power of government for cannabis equity.