Why Bernie Sanders is open to states legalizing marijuana

The senator from Vermont has voiced his support for ending a federal marijuana ban. 

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a town hall meeting with students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia October 28, 2015.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont announced he would remove marijuana from federal government’s outlawed drugs list if elected president.

Speaking at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, on Wednesday, Senator Sanders announced his support for states to regulate marijuana as they see fit, The Associated Press reports.

“Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use,” Mr. Sanders said. “That’s wrong. That has got to change.”

This is the first time a presidential candidate has supported taking a drug off the federal government's banned list and leaving the decision to the states.

“No other presidential candidate has called for marijuana to be completely removed from the schedule of controlled substances regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration,” The Washington Post notes.

Marijuana is listed as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it is considered to have a high potential for abuse and not accepted for medical treatment. Sanders’ proposal would allow states to regulate marijuana and would remove the threat of federal prosecution.

This is a shift in position for Sanders, who earlier this year in an interview with Yahoo! said that marijuana is a "gateway drug" that can lead to heroin and cocaine use.

The topic has been a key issue on the 2016 presidential campaign trail, and several candidates have expressed a willingness to let states set their own marijuana laws.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has said she is open to trying marijuana legalization at the state level, although she thinks more research is necessary.

"I think we're just at the beginning, but I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana," she said at the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, according to NBC News. "Therefore we need more states, cities and the federal government to begin to address this."

Earlier this year, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas voiced support for the right of states to pursue their own marijuana policies.

Following Colorado’s approval of legal marijuana, Republican candidate Carly Fiorina commented, “I respect Colorado’s right to do what they did. They are within their rights to legalize marijuana and they are conducting an experiment that I hope the rest of the nation is looking closely at. I believe in states’ rights. I would not, as president of the United States, enforce federal law in Colorado where Colorado voters have said they want to legalize marijuana.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said, “I thought it was a bad idea, but states ought to have the right to do it.”

In recent years, American views on pot have been changing. According to a Gallup poll released last week, 58 percent of Americans say that the use of marijuana should be legal, a seven-point year-over-year increase.

A 2014 Pew Research poll shows that 76 percent of Americans oppose jail time for people caught with small amounts of the drug.

According to Gallup, the biggest differentiators of Americans' opinions on legal marijuana are age and party identification.

“Younger Americans, Democrats and independents are the most likely of major demographic and political groups to favor legalizing use of the drug, while Republicans and older Americans are least likely to do so,” Gallup reports.

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