What was once a crowded Democratic presidential race has winnowed down to two major candidates: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden. For marijuana reform advocates, the stakes are high.
While the opponents diverge on a variety of issues, cannabis legalization represents one of the clearest examples of their ideological divide.
Put simply, Sanders was one of the earliest proponents of the reform move, becoming the first major presidential candidate to call for federal legalization in 2015 and filing the Senate’s first-ever bill to deschedule cannabis under federal law. In his current campaign, he’s included a legalization plank prominently in his platform with a pledge to take bold executive action early in his administration.
Biden, meanwhile, played a key role in enacting punitive anti-drug laws during his time as a senator, and he’s maintained opposition to legalization even as the vast majority of his party has come to embrace the policy change. That said, at a time when polls show that the vast majority of Democratic voters support ending cannabis prohibition, he has begun to embrace some modest reforms during the course of the campaign.
The issue didn’t come up at the two candidates’ first head-to-head debate on Sunday, but given the significant public interest in marijuana reform, those differences are sure to be highlighted in the weeks to come. For the time being, however, here’s an overview of the Sanders-Biden drug policy divide.
Adult-use marijuana legalization: YES.
For a U.S. senator, Sanders is a long-time supporter of recreational cannabis legalization. After calling for the policy change in 2015, he filed the first-ever Senate bill to federally legalize. He’s since made the policy a core tenet of his platform, repeatedly calling for comprehensive reform on the trail and laying out plans to get it done if elected.
Medical cannabis legalization: YES.
It was more than two decades ago that Sanders cosponsored a House bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana. He’s argued that the plant can serve as an alternative to prescription opioids, and he’d also made the case that it can be an effective treatment option for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Drug possession decriminalization: NO.
Unlike some former candidates, the senator has declined to back decriminalizing drugs beyond cannabis. Pressed on the issue last year, Sanders said he’s “not there yet” on the policy change. That said, Sanders has repeatedly issued vague calls to “end the war on drugs.”
Sanders frequently couples his call for legalization with a pledge to expunge prior marijuana convictions. He’s insisted that it’s not enough to end prohibition but to right the wrongs of prohibition, and expungements are a key part of that restorative justice plan.
Social equity: YES.
The candidate has proposed a series of social equity measures as part of his legalization plan. Part of that involves promoting participation in the market by people from communities harmed by the war on drugs. To ensure that the industry is not controlled by a handful of corporations, he also said tobacco companies should be barred from participating, and he’d encourage cannabis firms to incorporate as cooperatives or nonprofits, while also enacting market and franchise caps.
Administrative action: YES.
Sanders said that on his first day in office, he would issue an executive order to immediately legalize marijuana in all 50 states. An earlier plan he rolled out explained that he would appoint cabinet officials who are friendly to legalization to more systematically enact reform. Legal experts have challenged the idea that a president could unilaterally make cannabis legal across the country on day one, however.
States’ rights to legalize: YES, WITH A CAVEAT.
During his time in the House, Sanders voted four times in favor of amendments to prevent the Justice Department from interfering in local medical cannabis programs and he has since repeatedly backed the idea of letting states legalize despite ongoing federal prohibition. That said, it’s not clear if his new pledge to legalize marijuana across the country means he would try to force states to repeal any criminalization laws they wish to keep on the books.
Descheduling cannabis: YES.
The senator has pledged to immediately remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act through executive action. He’s consistently criticized the current status of cannabis as a Schedule I drug under federal law, calling it “insane” that it’s placed in the same restrictive category as heroin.
Safe consumption sites for illegal drugs: YES.
Sanders released a criminal justice reform plan last year that calls for the legalization of safe consumption sites where individuals can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment and get assistance going into treatment.
Personal use: YES.
The candidate said he’s consumed cannabis twice decades ago, but he’s said it “didn’t do much for me.”
Adult-use marijuana legalization: NO.
The former vice president has consistently maintained an opposition to recreational legalization. He came under fire from reform advocates last year after suggesting his reasoning was that cannabis may be a gateway to more dangerous drugs—a comment he subsequently walked back. More recently, he’s emphasized that he wouldn’t get on board with the policy change until more research was done to determine whether the plant is harmful.
Medical cannabis legalization: YES.
Biden has recently said he’s in favor of federally legalizing cannabis for medical purposes.
Drug possession decriminalization: UNCLEAR.
While the issue came up in a presidential debate he participated in, Biden was not pressed on the issue, and he hasn’t proactively taken a position in favor of the policy change. That said, while he has called for ending incarceration for drug use he has also coupled that with an insistence that people caught with illegal substances be diverted to treatment. Presumably people who refuse would face some kind of punishment, potentially including incarceration, though the candidate hasn’t specified.
Part of Biden’s criminal justice reform plan does call for automatic expungements. The candidate has said that nobody should be incarcerated for non-violent cannabis offenses, and he’s said those currently behind bars for such crimes should be released.
Social equity: NO.
Biden’s opposition to adult-use legalization means he has not weighed in on the various restorative justice provisions floated by advocates who want to ensure minority participation in an economy that the candidate want to keep illegal.
Administrative action: UNCLEAR.
While Biden supports a modest change in marijuana’s federal classification, it’s not clear if he would enact it administratively or call on Congress to do so.
States’ rights to legalize: YES.
The former vice president said that while he would not push for comprehensive legalization, he would respect the rights of states to implement their own cannabis programs.
Descheduling cannabis: NO.
Biden has rejected fully ending federal marijuana prohibition by descheduling cannabis. Instead, he’s backed modestly rescheduling cannabis to Schedule II in order to free up research into the plant.
Safe consumption sites for illegal drugs: N/A.
The candidate has not proactively offered his stance on safe consumption facilities, nor has he appeared to have been asked about it.
Personal use: NO.
It does not appear that Biden has publicly commented on any personal experience he has had with marijuana or other drugs.
While both candidates have pledged to let states enact their own legalization laws and enact certain federal reforms, only Sanders has said he supports actually ending cannabis prohibition and would take executive action on the issue.
Note: This analysis did not include Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who while still in the race has received just two pledged delegates of the 1,991 required to secure the nomination.
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