Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to cannabis reform, but this week he took his support for legalization a huge step further.
During an appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast on Tuesday, Sanders announced that, if elected, he wouldn’t merely support congressional legislation to legalize cannabis—he’d do it through an executive order.
“What I call for now is the legalization of marijuana in America,” Sanders told Rogan. “I believe we can do that through executive order, and I will do that,” he said.
A sort of legislative silver bullet, an executive order would enable Sanders as president to bypass what’s currently a Congress paralyzed by partisan gridlock. His comment represents one of the boldest strategies for cannabis reform by any presidential hopeful.
A Longtime Cannabis Champion
In his interview with Rogan, Sanders echoed the legalization and descheduling arguments he has been making for years—arguments that have earned him an A+ rating from advocacy group NORML. In 2015, Sanders sponsored the first Senate bill to end federal cannabis prohibition.
A lot’s changed in a single election cycle. When Sanders advocated for federal legalization during his 2016 presidential bid, his ideas were seen by many as extreme. Now, every major 2020 presidential challenger except Joe Biden supports legalization.
“What seemed kind of radical, the need to legalize and decriminalize marijuana… is spreading all over the country,” Sanders told Rogan. “And by the way, it blows my mind… Here in California, you see signs from corporations: ‘Buy our marijuana.’ Four years ago, people were getting arrested for doing that, right? Their lives being destroyed.”
He acknowledged the growing number of states, such as Illinois and New York that are expunging criminal records of low-level cannabis crimes, policing of which was disproportionately enforced against minority and marginalized communities. “[The] good news is some communities, some cities, are expunging the records, so if you were arrested, have a criminal record for selling marijuana, that is being expunged. And that is the right thing to do.”
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Sanders identified the Controlled Substances Act, which categorizes cannabis as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin, ecstasy, and LSD, as a major factor contributing to the United States’ “broken criminal justice system.”
“[The Controlled Substances Act] is insane,” Sanders said. “Heroin is a killer drug. You can argue the pluses and minuses of marijuana, but marijuana ain’t heroin. So we have to end that, and that’s what I will do.”
The Overdose Epidemic and ‘Diseases of Despair’
Asked about drug policy more generally, Sanders said he wasn’t interested in legalizing other drugs, at least “not at this point.” Rather, he noted that for the first time in history, Americans’ average lifespans have been getting shorter rather than longer. Moreover, a growing number of deaths result from drug overdoses and suicide.
“Why is it that so many of our people are turning to drugs, to alcohol … and tragically, to suicide?” he asked. “What the doctors are saying is that these are ‘diseases of disappear’”—signs someone is trying to escape from a reality too cruel or exhausting.
“‘So you’re in West Virginia, you’re in rural Ohio, or anyplace, Vermont … and the job you used to have earning a decent living is now in China,” he explained. “Your kid can’t afford to go to college, maybe you can’t afford healthcare. You’ve got nothing to look forward to. Under that scenario, drugs become a way out.”
Sanders said that if Americans’ quality of life were to improve, drug death rates would likely fall.
The real question, he argued, is “How can we reestablish hope and optimism in the American people?”