The other day, Students for Bernie Sanders published a blog post claiming that "Bernie Sanders wants to end the war on drugs and thankfully he doesn't need Congress to do it." Unsurprising to anyone who browses Reddit, redditors really liked it, pushing the blog post to the top of /r/politics:
For the progressive Reddit user, there's a lot to like in that headline — the progressive presidential candidate hates a policy widely opposed by progressives, and he doesn't need a Congress controlled by conservatives to stop it. Upvote!
But just about everything the article suggests in its headline — and full text — is misleading or wrong.
The article makes two claims: One, Sanders opposes the war on drugs. Two, Sanders could reshuffle the US Department of Justice, which oversees federal drug policy, and use the president's incredible pardon powers to effectively end the drug war.
We don't know if the first claim is true. In a 1972 letter to a local newspaper, Sanders said he wanted to "abolish all laws dealing with abortion, drugs, sexual behavior (adultery, homosexuality, etc.)." That seems clear enough. But Sanders's rhetoric hasn't been as strong in recent days — he's called the drug war a failure, but he said he's unsure about, for example, marijuana legalization, much less ending all other forms of criminal drug prohibition.
The second claim is flat-out wrong. While Sanders could reshuffle the Justice Department to take a laxer stance on the drug war, the agency would still rely on federal anti-drug laws — which were passed and can only be repealed by Congress — for policy, and the president has little to no control over federal prosecutors who go after drug offenders. And while Sanders could technically pardon every federal drug offender, the president can't pardon state prisoners, who make up roughly 86 percent of all US prisoners (and, by the way, a minority of them are drug offenders, and few of them are in private prisons). So Sanders wouldn't just need Congress to end the drug war; he would need state governments' legislatures to pitch in as well.
Sanders supporters may want him to end the war on drugs. Maybe the senator will eventually come around to doing that. But it's not clear he wants to. And even if he did, and went on to become president, he wouldn't be able to do it all by himself.