Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill Wednesday to end the federal prohibition on marijuana.
As Vermont officials and families are struggling to end the scourge of heroin across the state, Sanders says it’s disturbing that marijuana and something as deadly as heroin are classified the same in the eyes of the federal government.
“That it is absurd that it is compared to or treated the same way as heroin is,” Sanders says. “I think that’s just is totally absurd.”
Sanders’ bill would allow states to choose how to classify marijuana, including the four states that already regulate weed like alcohol.
Sanders is the first presidential candidate in either party to propose a plan that would allow for the recreational use of marijuana. At last month’s debate in Las Vegas, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked if she was ready to take a position on legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
"No,” she responded. “I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today. I do support the use of medical marijuana.”
While Clinton and her aides decide how to handle the issue, Sanders is taking the lead. He argues it’s a part of his plan to unclog the nation’s crowded prisons. When asked, Sanders denied that the move is an attempt to quiet the protests he’s gotten from the Black Lives Matter movement.
“No. This is in response to a huge issue that we have got to deal with as a nation,” he said. “We have 2.2 million people in jail. That is more people than any other country on earth including China, and that is something that we cannot be satisfied with.”
Sanders argues that the war on drugs has been a failure, and he says that doesn’t mean he isn’t tough on crime.
“Our goal is to have a criminal justice system which punishes and imprisons people who are violent and dangerous but does not destroy millions of lives of other people,” he said.
Sanders’ bill isn’t expected to reach the Senate floor as a standalone bill, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t broad support for its principles. When asked about allowing each state to decide their own marijuana policy, Republican Sen. John McCain endorsed the concept.
“Yeah, I’d like to see it being a state issue,” he said. “I’d like to have the folks – citizens of Arizona make the decision. And, by the way, from what I hear the polling data is that they’re in favor of it. I’m not.”
McCain argues marijuana is a gateway drug leading users to harder stuff, like heroin. Sanders disagrees, and says prescription drugs are more to blame.
“Opiates are a far more significant pathway drug to heroin,” he said. “Heroin is an epidemic. It is a huge issue and it’s something that we’ve got to address and I think we begin to address it by understanding that many people are today getting hooked on opiates.”
Sanders says the nation needs to start treating “addiction as an illness and not a crime.”
There’s a possibility he could offer his bill an amendment if the Senate takes up criminal justice reform, though no plans have been made for that at this time.