Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) often pledges on the presidential campaign trail that he will legalize marijuana in all 50 states on his first day in the White House—but he went a step further this weekend by inviting a crowd of about 15,000 people to come and personally witness the historic cannabis executive action.
At a rally in Chicago on Saturday, the 2020 Democratic candidate reiterated his legalization promise, stating that “there are some things that a president can do with executive order.”
“It just so happens that with an executive order, a president can make marijuana legal in every state in this country,” Sanders said, earning intense applause. “I invite you to the ceremony when we do just that.”
He joked that he might hold the signing ceremony in Grant Park, where the rally was being held.
“Let me ask you all a question: how many folks here know somebody who was arrested for possession of marijuana?” he went on to ask, as he’s done in prior campaign events. “We’re going to move to expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana.”
The senator’s proposal to immediately and unilaterally legalize cannabis nationwide is a relatively recent feature of his campaign, and replaces a prior pledge to enact federal change within his first 100 days in office. And while reform advocates are encouraged that he’s making the issue a priority, some experts have questioned whether the plan is legally or logistically achievable.
Chief among the issues is the fact that removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act wouldn’t necessarily change policies in states that continue to maintain prohibition. It might be federally legal, but individuals could theoretically be prosecuted under state law. Another issue is that the process of changing cannabis’s status under federal law itself involves several agencies and is not something the president can necessarily get done unilaterally—let alone on day one of an administration.
In any case, the rhetoric demonstrates one thing clearly to voters: Sanders is a pro-legalization candidate and would work to enact comprehensive reform. The other front-runner in the race, former Vice President Joe Biden, would not.
Biden again made that clear in a recent interview where he was asked about plans he had to change federal cannabis policies. He said he would reschedule the plant, decriminalize it and expunge past records, but he would not legalize until he’s satisfied that there’s sufficient evidence it’s not harmful.
That said, even the anti-legalization candidate is working to distance himself from the image of a drug war architect who holds outmoded views on marijuana. He expressed frustration recently that people continue to associate him with past comments he made suggesting that he opposes legalization because he feels it could be a gateway to more dangerous drugs.
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