The Sanders Plan to Legalize Marijuana Does More Than Legalize Marijuana

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at DownWithTyranny!

“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
—John Ehrlichman, Chief Domestic Advisor for Richard Nixon

In the welter of plans from the welter of Democratic primary candidates, this should not be missed. Bernie Sanders’ plan to legalize marijuana does exactly that — he will take it off the Schedule I list of controlled substances by executive order and not add it to the Schedule II list (as Biden would do), leaving it completely unregulated nationally.

But the Sanders plan also does more. He will start to repair the damage done to millions of people, mainly those of color, by conviction of marijuana “crimes.” In addition, a third part of his plan will prevent the marijuana industry from becoming (or being dominated by) Big Tobacco.

Here are the pieces in detail.

Legalizing Marijuana Immediately

From Sanders plan:

As president, Bernie will:

Legalize marijuana in the first 100 days with executive action by:

  • Nominating an attorney general, HHS secretary, and administrator for the DEA who will all work to aggressively end the drug war and legalize marijuana
  • Immediately issuing an executive order that directs the Attorney General to declassify marijuana as a controlled substance
    • While Congress must aggressively move to end the war on drugs and undo its damage, as president Bernie will not wait for Congress to act.
  • Passing legislation to ensure permanent legalization of marijuana

I would expect most serious candidates to follow suit on this plan, but I trust Sanders more than almost any other candidate to follow through as a Day 1 action. Would this be a Day 1–type action for Buttigieg or Warren? I doubt it. O’Rourke perhaps would prioritize this, but he’s not going to see the White House anytime soon without a visitor’s pass.

Vacate All Past Marijuana Convictions

It’s not enough — not by half — to simply legalize marijuana for the current generation of users. One of the greatest injustices in our history — the utter and deliberate devastation of millions of American lives, most of them people of color — was perpetrated on two past generations as well, starting with the generation that came of age under Richard Nixon.

Yes, deliberate devastation. Here’s John Ehrlichman in a late-in-life interview confessing to this decades-old crime. Ehrlichman speaking (quoted here; emphasis mine):

“You want to know what this [the war on drugs] was really all about? … The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Bernie Sanders will do his best to undo this damage, starting with the living victims. Those who have died in prison or at the end of reduced or destroyed post-prison lives cannot, sadly, be made whole. They must remain on Nixon and Ehrlichman’s account book forever. (For crimes like this, I do hope there’s a hell.)

Here’s what Sanders will do for the victims still alive (emphasis mine):

Vacate and expunge all past marijuana-related convictions.

  • In a Sanders administration we will review all marijuana convictions – both federal and state – for expungement and re-sentencing. All past convictions will be expunged.
  • Based on the California model, we will direct federal and state authorities to review current and past marijuana related convictions for eligibility. This review will include re-sentencing for all currently incarcerated with marijuana convictions. Following determination of eligibility or status, prosecutors will have one year to appeal or object, after which authorities will automatically expunge and vacate past marijuana convictions for all those eligible.
  • Federal funding will be provided to states and cities to partner with organizations that can help develop and operate the expungement determination process, much like how California worked with Code for America.
  • Allow people with marijuana convictions to contact the state to ensure the list did not miss them. And we will grant people with marijuana related convictions an administrative remedy, if after two years, the state has not taken action on their sentences and records.
  • Revitalize the executive clemency process by creating an independent clemency board removed from the Department of Justice and placed in the White House.
  • Ensure a just reentry for people leaving incarceration as detailed in Bernie’s Justice and Safety for All plan.

All this is promised by executive action on Day 1, or as near to Day 1 as can be managed.

Invest Revenue from Legal Marijuana into Communities Hardest Hit by the “War on Drugs”

As the legal marijuana industry grows — and it will get a massive boost from immediately 50-state legalization — tax money that results from it must be used properly. For Sanders this means returning that money to the hardest hit communities.

From the plan:

Ensure that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs, especially African-American and other communities of color.

With new tax resources from legal marijuana sales, we will:

  • Create a $20 billion grant program within the Minority Business Development Agency to provide grants to entrepreneurs of color who continue to face discrimination in access to capital.
  • With this revenue we will also create a $10 billion grant program to focus on 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.
  • Provide formerly incarcerated individuals with training and resources needed to start their own businesses and worker owned businesses, and guarantee jobs and free job training at trade schools and apprenticeship programs related to marijuana businesses. […]
  • Use revenue from marijuana sales to establish a targeted $10 billion USDA 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 to ensure people impacted by the war on drugs have access to the entire marijuana industry. […]
  • Create a $10 billion targeted economic and community development fund to provide grants to communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs.
    • We will also ensure that every community in the country has the resources they need to address our opioid addiction crisis and prevent the abuse of other hard drugs. And we will work with states to fund and pursue innovative overdose prevention initiatives.

Eliminate barriers to public benefits for people who have interacted with the criminal justice system, including licenses and contracts, based on prior records, and eliminate drug testing requirements from future benefits and ensure people cannot be removed from public housing for marijuana use.

  • We will also direct agencies to remove all references to marijuana that limit people’s ability to access government services and we will eliminate the consequences of a marijuana record related to immigration.

Legalization without reparations is simply cruel, benefiting the unpunished at the expense of the already broken and destroyed. Sanders plan includes reparations.

Prevent Marijuana from Becoming Big Tobacco

One of the greatest fears of many who watch the marijuana business grow is that it will become yet another rip-off billionaire industry dominated by a few players who charge what they please and buy laws and regulations that outlaw or disadvantage smaller entrepreneurial enterprises from participating. (For examples, see here and here).

Fears of a “neoliberal response” to the prospect of marijuana decriminalization are not unfounded. Do you want Coca Cola, Disney, or RJ Reynolds to gain control of the marijuana market? Each of them, and many many more, would like to.

Bernie Sanders’ plan addresses that possibility.

Ensure Legalized Marijuana Does Not Turn Into Big Tobacco

Big Tobacco is already targeting the marijuana industry for its profits. As president, Bernie will not allow marijuana to turn into Big Tobacco. He will:

  • Incentivize marijuana businesses to be structured like nonprofits.
    • We will provide resources for people to start cooperatives and collective nonprofits as marijuana businesses that will create jobs and economic growth in local communities.
  • Prohibit products and labels that target young people.
  • Ban companies that have created cancer-causing products or guilty of deceptive marketing.
  • Ban tobacco/cigarette corporations from participating in the marijuana industry.
  • Institute market share and franchise caps to prevent consolidation and profiteering.
  • Regulate the safety of marijuana products by granting the federal government regulatory authority. Partner with USDA to establish safety inspection and quality control processes for growers and producers.

A comment about point three above: Punishing companies for past bad behavior is decidedly non-neoliberal, and just a start in my view for how these companies should be treated. If a living breathing person committed premeditated murder, what would the punishment be? Now what if that deliberate murderer were a non-breathing corporate person? Should the sentence be less?

Jeffrey Dahmer killed fewer than twenty people. He was incarcerated for life and later beaten to death by a fellow prisoner. How many hundreds did Ford Motors kill with its exploding Pinto? How many millions does Big Tobacco continue to kill? Should any company with this kind of past be rewarded with the gift of the next big profit opportunity, or should it be shut down instead (“incarcerated for life”) and their executives prosecuted as breathing deliberate killers?

Other parts of Sanders’ platform deal with forbidding monopoly practices, and they would apply here as well. But making explicitly sure that a vibrant marijuana industry is not quickly dominated by a de facto monopoly of its own would be, dare we say it, a breath of fresh air.

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  1. Henry Moon Pie

    Bernie’s plan sounds great, but it’s missing one crucial component: home grow. I also checked Bernie’s website page about his marijuana plan, and there’s nothing about it there.

    Home grow is one very important weapon against the corporatization of marijuana.

    1. T

      If weed isn’t a controlled substance, why wouldn’t you be able to grow it like tomatoes or hydrangeas?

    2. Amfortas the hippie

      i’d also like to see pot seeds(including seed saving) and cuttings protected from monsatan, etc…and an end to the ridiculous assumptions that justify mandating security theater for even hemp(the texas statute legalising hemp has over the top security requirements…razor wire, etc…based on the “devil’s weed” collection of assumptions)

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Marijuana is not addictive, those are. Those require processing, marijuana does not.

      Criminalizing those drugs hasn’t worked, but legalizing them as was done with pharmaceutical opioids has been a disaster. They need to be treated differently than marijuana which is relatively harmless. No one has ever overdosed on marijuana.

      1. ambrit

        Create a taskforce, (standard bureaucratic practice,) to go over to Portugal and record how that country managed full decriminalization.

      2. hunkerdown

        Marijuana doesn’t require processing?! Ask any home grower about “trim jail”. Tell that to the bud trimmers, who are mostly women, and not treated especially well for their all-day trimming shifts even under legal regimens.

        1. lyman alpha blob

          What I was getting at is you can simply pick it and use it. It doesn’t need to be processed into some other usable form.

    2. Susan the Other

      All drugs should be legalized or eradicated. Fentanyl would be a good candidate for eradication. But a majority of the rest of the “illegal” drugs are already distributed by prescription. If they can be prescribed they are relatively safe; abuse notwithstanding. The objective should be to strictly standardize them, ensure they are safe for recreational use, price them reasonably. Selling them behind the pharmacy counter would also ensure that minors do not start taking them. If they can allow vaping and the belated realization that vaping is dangerous to lung tissue – but they haven’t figured the pathology out quite yet – then they certainly can allow more responsible methods to introduce legalized drugs, i.e. strict standardizations, etc. Both the hypocrisy and irresponsibility – and hysteria- are unacceptable.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Tulsi Gabbard would be a good no-compromise no-prisoners choice for VP running mate.

  2. John Beech

    I just watched 60 Minutes where some guy in CA is being killed by fees and taxes to raise 50 plants – not like a $50 business license, but thousands and thousands of dollars! Add to it, the Sheriff is still flying around in a helicopter spotting illegal growing often – his words – amongst legal growing.

    Please, just stop interfering! Some guy wants to raise pot plants and sell buds, it’s fine by me. You want to get high? I don’t care. I don’t even smoke . . . but I certainly don’t care if ‘you’ do.

    I’m in FL where some big shot lawyer is on the side of liberalizing the pot laws and by a large majority, this measure was voted on passed, but our Republican-controlled state legislature has made it nearly impossible for folks to go into business. I don’t get it . . . what is it in human nature that makes some people want to control others? Enough already! Good grief, have we forgotten that bit about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

    1. Thomas Neuburger

      I don’t get it . . . what is it in human nature that makes some people want to control others? Enough already! Good grief, have we forgotten that bit about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

      A legacy of hippie-hating that, decades ago, was made synonymous with flag-loving and sold by Republicans as a chaser to their full shot of racism.


  3. p, fitzsimon

    Actually, marijuana is addictive. Not like heroin or fentanyl but definitely addictive. If you look at the Colorado data, the most mature, the vast majority of revenue comes from about 20% of the users. The data shows that this group uses every day in large quantity, about 1.5 grams on average per person per day. Enough for a pack of joints. The other big issue is safety. There is no legal equivalent to the alcohol breathalyzer and blood tests.
    In our state, ten years ago we decriminalized marijuana and allowed the sale of medical marijuana reducing arrests by 98%. However, the more recent legalization of recreational retail marijuana, via referendum, has all but triggered civil war over zoning and regulation at the community level. Advocates see an equivalence with alcohol which means marijuana everywhere and big industry involvement. It’s too late for Bernie or anyone at the national level to rollback this juggernaut. The Democrats will waste enormous effort, and create another highly divisive issue when there are far more important problems, and for what.
    I understand what Nixon did. He even created a new agency, the DEA, to go after drugs. Decriminalization is a good thing but the commercialization/industrialization of marijuana is not good.

    1. JE

      1.5g in a strain of pot with 20% THC is 300mg per day which is a lot of THC. Considering my limited experience, that is enough to get 10 normal users really high on a 30mg dose. What would happen to an individual drinking enough alcohol for inebriating 10 people? 60 beers in a day? Death. Whether or not marijuana creates physical addiction I can say anecdotally it does create mental/emotional addiction as does any repeated behavior that interacts with our reward centers. A subset of people will abuse any activity, substance or product that interacts with our pleasure and reward centers. Booze, pot, sex, Facebook. It is human to do so. Friends and family that use regularly (I grew up in CO) continue to use regularly and don’t like to skip their fix. Do they suffer the withdrawal typical of alcohol abuse? No. And they are much more productive, happy, and healthy than alcohol abusers. We tolerate alcohol as the lubricant of our society with all of its ills and costs. We can tolerate marijuana as a less damaging escape from the tyranny of our prefrontal cortex. Especially if done well as Bernie’s plan appears to be at least trying to do. Time will tell, there is no putting pot back in the box.

    2. Stephen Gardner

      So you think that the fact that most of the revenue comes from 20% of users is evidence of addiction? How are the users of baklava distributed?

      1. lyman alpha blob

        Exactly. 1.5 grams is a decent amount to use per day but it is not equivalent to pack of joints, not even close. A quarter ounce or 7g might get you a pack of (20) joints but that’s probably a stretch. Unless of course you’re rolling those huge Bob Marley joints Bill Murray was smoking in Caddyshack ;)

        And just because you use 1.5 grams per day for a while, you can still stop with no adverse physical side effects. It’s only addictive in the way a person might get addicted to dessert.

        1. Norm de plume

          ‘Unless of course you’re rolling those huge Bob Marley joints Bill Murray was smoking in Caddyshack ;)’

          Or the Camberwell Carrot produced by Presumin’ Ed’s mate in Withnail and I.

  4. John Zelnicker

    @p, fitzsimon
    October 29, 2019 at 10:17 am

    There is no objective evidence that marijuana is addictive. It can be abused if it impairs a person’s ability to function in society. However, stopping the use of marijuana causes no withdrawal symptoms and even those who abuse it mostly don’t have the characteristics of an addict.

    BTW, 1.5 grams is enough for 3 or 4 joints, not a pack (20?, like cigarettes).

    Nixon started the War on Drugs to repress the hippies and anti-war radicals of the ’60’s (marijuana) and the black liberation movement (heroin). It’s on tape in a discussion with Haldemann, one of his henchmen.

    If marijuana is only decriminalized you will still have a black market and governments will miss out on the tax revenue and the ability to regulate it.

    Edit: This comment is a reply to p, fitzsimon at 10:17.

    1. vlade

      There are two things. Addiction and dependency. THC can definitely create dependency, there’s no doubt about it (pretty much anything can). From a number of points, there’s very little difference between addition and dependency TBH.

      On addiction – given how most of the drugs work (and we don’t really know about it that well), pretty much all of them can create addiction. But that’s where individual’s genetics come into play.

      There are people for who forming addiction is very hard, possibly bordering on impossible. Then there are people who can become addicted with a single dose.
      Also, most of the drugs change the way the genes express, which makes the whole thing pretty hard.

      TLDR; we have little clue how it exactly works. Here my thing is the more complex the molecule, the less likely we are to understand how exactly it works, and the more careful we’d be.

      Fundamentally, I’m for drug legalisation. But at the same time we have to realise that legalised drugs will get to kids and “genetically vulnerable” more than they do now. Withouth it, how is it different from “[it] makes feel me right, why should govt put its nose in?” where you can replace “it” with a number of things on left and right.

      As John Wick says “Consequences”.

      Unfortunately, most people work out the consequences mostly on the anecdotal evidence from their own lives.

      1. notabanktoadie

        Of course, if we had an ethical economic system, including and especially the finance system, then the demand for drugs would be minimal anyway:

        Give strong drink to him who is perishing,
        And wine to him whose life is bitter.
        Let him drink and forget his poverty
        And remember his trouble no more.

        Open your mouth for the mute,
        For the rights of all the unfortunate.
        Open your mouth, judge righteously,
        And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.
        Proverbs 31:6-9

      2. Duke DeGuise

        I’ve been a frequent user of cannabis – every day, usually more than once per day – for over 45 years, yet when traveling overseas I customarily do without, and feel no physical symptoms whatsoever. Given that, it seems preposterous to call it “addictive.”

        Cannabis and psychedelics apparently can trigger psychotic episodes in a small subset of young people who use them, but that’s a separate matter from addiction.

        Marijuana is not addictive: punto finito.

        1. John Zelnicker

          @Duke DeGuise
          October 30, 2019 at 2:41 pm

          Agree wholeheartedly. I have also used cannabis daily for five decades and had no problem doing without when I traveled.

          I also developed a dependency on opiates for awhile due to back surgery. And, vlade, there is a significant difference between addiction and dependency. See the research of Dr. Carl Hart, a psychiatrist at Columbia. He’s one of the top experts on addiction.

  5. Quill

    Not entirely well thought out here.

    “In a Sanders administration we will review all marijuana convictions – both federal and state – for expungement and re-sentencing. All past convictions will be expunged. Based on the California model, we will direct federal and state authorities to review current and past marijuana related convictions for eligibility. ”

    Presidents don’t get to affect state convictions. Also, for Federal convictions, why would you want to re-sentence them instead of fully pardoning them?

    1. Appleseed

      Good point. The way I read it, the federal convictions targeted for re-sentencing would be for crimes that include marijuana in addition to other crimes against property or people. So sentence reduction would be only for the marijuana conviction. Don’t know where Bernie stands on convictions for dealing; e.g. the local county prosecutor recently announced his office wasn’t going to bother with simple possession of small amounts for personal use. But if guns and/or dealing were involved, then charges will be filed.

  6. herman_sampson

    What also needs to be addressed in penalizing employees and the unemployed who are required to take drug tests. Tests for marijuana seem to be cheap, quick and dirty and detect use for months. Tests for intoxication/ impairment would be more reasonable. Now, people can be penalized for doing something legal (at least in some states).

  7. peon

    Michigan allows you to grow 12 plants legally. I would like to see you able to sell the products from those 12 plants legally, without fees. You could sell at the farmers market or your roadside stand. It would create a “craft marijuana” market that made it easy to be a small producer of edibles, oils, bud, whatever.

  8. Tyronius

    Hands down the most sane policy statement on marijuana/cannabis I’ve seen in my lifetime from an American politician. No other candidate will get my vote henceforth.

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