On Thursday, October 24, 2019, at exactly 4:20 PM, a time and date heavily associated with cannabis culture, Senator Bernie Sanders posted a Tweet about his plan to legalize cannabis. If elected president, Sanders claimed he would legalize cannabis with executive action, expunge past cannabis convictions, and invest in communities that have been the most affected by the disastrous War on Drugs. How long will the media continue to under-represent support for the Sanders campaign when his plans are consistently supported by the majority of Americans?
Here is Senator Sanders’ full plan if you haven’t had a chance to read over it yet.
In short, these are the key points outlined by Senator Sanders’ plan:
- Legalize marijuana in the first 100 days with executive action
- Vacate and expunge all past marijuana-related convictions
- Ensure that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs
- Ensure legalized marijuana does not turn into big tobacco
In his proposed plan Sanders outlined many of the disparities that exist today due to cannabis criminalization. He cited that, although cannabis use is roughly equal across all races, African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for possession of cannabis. Indeed, mass incarceration has not touched all communities equally as the chart below demonstrates. Thankfully, Senator Sanders has understood this reality and fought against the prison-industrial pipeline for his entire life. However, in a system that perpetuates white supremacy at the expense of people of color, change does not come easy, especially when corporate profits and lobbyist donations are at stake.
“Why is it that in 2019, you can get arrested for smoking marijuana, but not one of the crooks on Wall Street went to jail for nearly destroying the economy 11 years ago? Why is it that millions of dollars are being made by mostly white, mostly male, and already rich “cannabiz” entrepreneurs in states where marijuana is legal, while the people and communities that were ravaged by the War on Drugs have been shut out of the industry, denied credit, and many are still incarcerated?”
Less than a decade ago the establishment media and politicians told the American people that legalizing cannabis was “too radical.” Today, at least 11 states have legalized recreational cannabis and at least 33 have legalized medical cannabis. Legalization of cannabis on a national level is supported by a majority of the American people. Public support only seems to grow as more and more states legalize cannabis for either recreational or medicinal use. The states that have passed cannabis legalization in either form have seen very positive effects in terms of growing the economy, bringing down the crime rate, and bringing in more taxes.
Even though the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, it has nearly 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, largely due to the War on Drugs. The graph below is from The Sentencing Project which, “works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.” The Sentencing Project provides a wealth of statistics and sources, like the graph below, that demonstrates just how out of whack our criminal justice system is in the U.S.
Despite currently being the world leader in number of citizens incarcerated, this wasn’t always the case. Indeed, the United States only began to see a drastic increase in its state and federal prison populations during the 1980s.
You may be asking yourself, “How did this happen?” A variety of media pundits and politicians cite different reasons that seek to explain this phenomenon. However, the truth is much more simple: we started sending more people to prison. In the “tough on crime” era in the United States there was a series of law enforcement and sentencing policy changes that resulted in a dramatic growth in incarceration. ” Since the official beginning of the War on Drugs in the 1980s, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses in the U.S. skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 452,964 in 2017. Today, there are more people behind bars for a drug offense than the number of people who were in prison or jail for any crime in 1980.”
Not only did we start sending more people to jail and prisons overall. We also starting sending people to prison for much longer terms. The number of people serving life sentences has increased dramatically since the early 1980s. In 1984 the number of people serving life sentences was roughly 34,000. In 2016, that number has increased to 161,957 life sentences.
However, the policy of longer sentences does not align with the data that we have regarding crime and age. People actually tend to “age out” of crime. Research shows that crime starts to peak in the mid- to late- teenage years and begins to decline when individuals are in their mid-20s. After that, crime drops sharply as adults reach their 30s and 40s.
The National Research Council study concluded that: “Because recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders, are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation.”
Not only are the excessive sentencing practices in the U.S. largely counterproductive in the face of research, they are extremely costly.
With these statistics in mind, it is clear that something needs to be done. Bernie’s plan to end cannabis prohibition is extensive and takes into account the long history of the War on Drugs, especially its disproportionate effects on communities of color. Within the first 100 days as President, Sanders will:
- Nominate an attorney general, HHS secretary, and DEA administrator who will work to aggressively end the drug war and legalize cannabis
- Immediately issue an executive order to direct the Attorney General to declassify cannabis as a controlled substance
- Pass legislation to ensure permanent legalization of cannabis.
The first point of this part of Bernie’s plan is crucial. It is not up to one person alone to fix the problems our nation is currently facing. I trust that Senator Sanders will nominate and appoint civil servants that reflect his values of honesty, equality, and justice. His second point of declassifying cannabis so that is not the legal equivalent to heroin is something that should have been done decades ago. The fact that such a plant with no known levels of toxicity and so many medicinal benefits was ever deemed illegal in the first place is a testament to the failure of the War on Drugs. Declassifying cannabis as a controlled substance would eliminate the current onerous barriers to banking services for growers and dispensaries within the industry, allowing them to access the banking system just like any other business does.
Senator Sanders’ plan also outlines their goals in terms of the vacation and expungement of all past cannabis-related convictions. The plan notes that all cannabis convictions, both federal and state, will be reviewed for expungement and re-sentencing. They want to roll out this process nationwide based on the California model, in which prosecutors would have one year to appeal or object to a determination of eligibility, after which authorities will automatically expunge and vacate past cannabis convictions for all those eligible.
As with any program of this size and scope, Sanders’ critics are likely going to echo the age-old, “How are you going to pay for it?” line. Thankfully, that is addressed in his plan too. “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.” Contributing American dollars to working American people in order to provide better lives for their fellow Americans. Sounds pretty socialist to me.
The plan also provides for people with cannabis convictions to contact the state to ensure they are not missing by the list of cases to review. To ensure that this process does not get back-logged or bogged down in bureaucracy, if the state has not taken action on their sentences and records after two years, people will be granted an administrative remedy.
Most importantly, as we talk about here, Senator Sanders’ plan seeks to ensure a just reentry for people leaving incarceration as detailed in Bernie’s Justice and Safety for All plan.
One of the most dominant fears that many people have of a legal cannabis industry is that the revenue and profits would be reaped be the very people that profited from the War on Drugs and the prison-industrial complex in the first place. Thankfully, Senator Sanders also has that fear, and part of his plan addresses exactly where the revenue from a legal cannabis industry would go.
Bernie’s plan notes that with new tax resources from legal cannabis 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.
Bernie’s plan also outlines how we will eliminate barriers to public benefits from people who have interacted with the criminal justice system. This is extremely important in order to break down the stigma that surrounds the formerly incarcerated. There are simply too many barriers in place that unjustly prevents people who have been to prison from achieving gainful employment or quality housing. This is especially important for those who have been imprisoned for merely drug possession convictions.
The plan calls to eliminate drug testing requirements from future benefits and ensure people cannot be removed from public housing for cannabis use. Going even further, they also plan to direct agencies to remove all references to cannabis that limit people’s ability to access government services and to eliminate the consequences of a cannabis record related to immigration.
Another fear that many people have about a legal cannabis industry is that it will turn into “Big Tobacco.” Indeed the large tobacco corporations are already targeting the cannabis industry for its profits. However, Sanders wants to ensure that the cannabis industry does not turn into Big Tobacco. As President, Sanders will:
- Incentivize marijuana businesses to be structured like nonprofits.
- 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.
The War on Drugs has been an immense failure to the American people. It has made the United States into the country with the largest population of incarcerated people on the planet. It has torn apart countless communities, particularly poor communities and communities of color. It has enriched those who have invested in the prison-industrial complex and pressured our politicians to continue pushing archaic policies in the face of contradictory scientific evidence.
The plan that Senator Sanders has proposed seeks to end the catastrophic War on Drugs, vacate and expungement cannabis related convictions, remove the housing and employment barriers that the formerly incarcerated face, and ensure that the revenues generated from the legal cannabis industry are reinvested in the communities most affected by the War on Drugs, while being kept out of the hands of Big Tobacco. Senator Sanders’ plan comes at a time when Americans are suffering from a lung illness crisis sweeping the nation. Over twenty people have died due to this outbreak that is likely caused by illicit THC cartridges being sold in the black market. Under President Sanders, these black markets would be eliminated when cannabis is legalized and regulated on a national level.