The proposal is among the most ambitious from one of the Democratic presidential candidates. It would move to legalize marijuana within 100 days through executive action. But it would also address the potential downsides and criticisms of how several states have legalized marijuana so far — by trying to limit the size and scope of the marijuana industry and taking several steps to ensure that communities of color benefit from legalization while potential bad actors, such as tobacco companies, do not.
First, Sanders would sign an executive order directing the attorney general to declassify marijuana as a controlled substance — removing it from the drug scheduling system and effectively legalizing weed at the federal level. (For more on how this could work, read Gabrielle Gurley’s piece at the American Prospect.)
Sanders would then push Congress to pass a bill to “ensure permanent legalization of marijuana.” After it’s legalized at the federal level, states would also still need to legalize within their own borders.
Although 11 states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana, the drug remains illegal at the federal level, which imposes all sorts of barriers on state-legal marijuana businesses. For example, they must function as cash-only enterprises since many banks are nervous about dealing with businesses that are essentially breaking federal law. The businesses also can’t file for several deductions, and, as a result, their effective income tax rates can soar to as high as 90 percent or more. Marijuana’s classification in the drug scheduling system is also a basis for other restrictions on it, although federal penalties for marijuana are typically more lenient than they are for other drugs.
Separately, the Sanders administration would push state and federal authorities to expunge past convictions for marijuana. As noted in Sanders’s criminal justice reform plan, he would also set up an independent clemency board to grant those with federal convictions an early relief. And he would move to “eliminate barriers to public benefits for people who have interacted with the criminal justice system.”
Sanders also promises to use new tax revenue from legal marijuana to create a $20 billion grant program for “entrepreneurs of color who continue to face discrimination in access to capital” and another $10 billion grant program for businesses “that are at least 51% owned or controlled by those in disproportionately impacted areas or individuals who have been arrested for or convicted of marijuana offenses.”
He also vows to create supports for the formerly incarcerated, a $10 billion grant program to “help disproportionately impacted areas and individuals who have been arrested for or convicted of marijuana offenses start urban and rural farms and urban and rural marijuana growing operations,” and a $10 billion development fund to “provide grants to communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs.”
Finally, Sanders would try to prevent marijuana businesses from turning into an analog of Big Tobacco — a major concern even among some supporters of legalization. He would financially incentivize marijuana businesses to be nonprofits; prohibit products and labels that target young people; ban tobacco companies, as well as other companies that make cancer-causing products or are “guilty of deceptive marketing,” from the pot industry; set market share and franchise caps; and establish federal regulation for the safety of cannabis products.
Marijuana legalization has been a consistent winner in the 2020 primaries so far. With the notable exception of Joe Biden, the higher-polling candidates have come out in favor of legalization. Elizabeth Warren, like Sanders, said she would take executive action to legalize pot. Andrew Yang said he would pardon people locked up for a marijuana offense and “high five them on their way out of jail.” Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, among others, have also put out plans to legalize marijuana.
One explanation for that: Legalization is extremely popular, especially among Democrats. A Gallup poll this week found that 66 percent of Americans support legalization, including 76 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans.
Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.
Opponents, meanwhile, claim that legalization will enable a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on some of the heaviest consumers of their products. This could result in more people using pot, even if it leads to negative health consequences.
Sanders, at least, has come out on the side of supporters, although with acknowledgment of the potential threat of Big Marijuana.