Yesterday, at precisely 4:20 p.m., the candidate released a detailed, sweeping proposal to legalize marijuana on the federal level. “Too many lives were ruined due to the disastrous criminalization of marijuana. Today I am releasing my plan to: Legalize marijuana with executive action, expunge past marijuana convictions, [and] invest in communities most affected by the War on Drugs,” the senator tweeted.
According to Sanders’ plan, the presidential candidate would ensure that revenue from the cannabis industry is pumped back into communities that have been most negatively affected by the War on Drugs, such as marginalized communities of color. The plan would authorize the creation of a $20 billion grant program within the Minority Business Development Agency to allow entrepreneurs of color to have the funds to start their businesses, as well as a $10 billion grant program to help fund businesses in areas that have been disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs.
Sanders’ plan would also call to review all past marijuana convictions on both the federal and state levels. All past marijuana convictions would be expunged, while current marijuana-related prison sentences will also be placed under review.
In a move fulfilling most college students’ 2 am “if I were president” fantasies, Sanders’ plan also includes a call to sign an executive order within the first hundred days of office, which will authorize the attorney general to declassify marijuana as a Schedule I drug. While Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke have both promised to use executive action to deschedule marijuana, the promise to do so within the first hundred days is unique within the campaign field, says Violet Cavendish, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project. Such a statement “demonstrates his commitment to the issue,” she says.
While Sanders’ tweet perhaps got most attention for the fact that it was posted on 4:20 pm, the plan is actually fairly ambitious in the context of the other candidates in the 2020 presidential race. “With the exception of Joe Biden, all of the leading Democratic candidates for President support legalizing marijuana,” Cavendish says. “Bernie Sanders has set himself apart from the field by proposing the most detailed plan we’ve seen from any candidate during this primary campaign.”
“The unique points of the Sanders proposal are twofold,” adds Justin Strekal, political director of NORML. The first is a provision in his proposal suggesting that revnue from marijuana sales establish a $10 billion USDA grant program to help those in areas impacted by the War on Drugs start urban or rural farms or marijuana growing operations, which “really releverages the power of the USDA to promote rural farmers and small farmers and diversity in the marketplace,” says Strekal.
The second, and perhaps more important, unique aspect of Sanders’ proposal is the “anti-monopoly component,” says Strekal, which the candidate says will prevent the rapidly growing cannabis industry from becoming like “Big Tobacco.” With cannabis entrepreneurs facing sky-high licensing application fees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as regulators putting up increasingly insurmountable hurdles, “we’re seeing accelerated consolidation of the marketplace,” says Strekal, adding that the same large cannabis companies are often receiving most of the licenses in each state. Sanders’ proposal attempts to ensure “this new legal economy would be robust and provide pathways for wealth generation and ownership for tens and thousands of people, as opposed to just a handful,” he says.
Sanders’ proposal also specifically calls out the tobacco industry, which is currently targeting the marijuana industry and attempting to reap its profits. Sanders’ proposal vows to restructure cannabis businesses more like nonprofits and less like corporations, as well as banning tobacco companies from participating in the cannabis industry. The goal is to issue something of a preemptory strike before Big Tobacco gains further share in the cannabis industry, “to protect main street American businesses as opposed to Wall Street,” says Strekal.
Sanders has a long history of pushing for cannabis law reform. In 2015, the senator filed the first ever Senate bill to end the federal prohibition of marijuana; he also cosponsored the 2017 Marijuana Justice Act, which called to declassify marijuana as a schedule 1 drug.
Currently, recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states and Washington, D.C. It is illegal on the federal level, thus making it difficult for cannabis business owners even in legal states to work with banks or file for certain deductions. The growing focus on marijuana in the 2020 Democratic race, however, appears to indicate that the tide may be turning toward more widespread acceptance of cannabis legalization on the federal level. “Overall, the Democratic field is clearly listening to the strong majority of the American public who support ending our failed policy of prohibition,” says Cavendish.
The Sanders’ proposal is unique in that it takes a comprehensive and more long-term approach toward the cannabis marketplace, and ensures that small business owners will be able to have a piece of the pie. “Right now many of the conversations we’re having when it comes to developing regulatory structures and licensing is very short-sighted. And we’re not thinking what is this economy gonna look like in 50 years and who’s gonna have the opportunity to have ownership and employment and to be a part of it,” says Strekal. “And in that regard it’s a unique approach as far as federal proposals go.”