Bernie Sanders Says He'd Vote for Legal Pot at Dem Debate: Will Others Follow?

Back in August, we noted that many supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders's presidential candidacy wished that he would become more progressive when it comes to marijuana policies.

At last night's Democratic hopefuls debate in Las Vegas, they got their wish.

When asked if he would vote to legalize recreational marijuana sales if he was a resident of Nevada, where such a measure is bound for the 2016 ballot, he replied, "I suspect I would."

This statement represents a considerable change for Sanders, who the Washington Post previously described as "pretty timid when it comes to legalization.... On marijuana, Bernie Sanders is kind of a disappointing socialist ex-hippie."

Sanders had previously backed the right of states to establish their own medical marijuana rules. But when asked about recreational legalization earlier this year, he said, "Colorado, some other states, have legalized it. In Vermont, we've decriminalized it. I want to take a look at how that is going before I make a final opinion."

During his debate remarks, Sanders quickly turned the conversation to a preferred theme, decrying the number of people jailed for non-violent offenses in this country — after which Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, was given the opportunity to follow his legalization lead.

She didn't take it. Instead, Clinton essentially repeated her previous position on marijuana legalization, saying we should wait to see how the process is working in Colorado and other states before making wider ranging decisions.

Nonetheless, cannabis-policy reformers were cheered by the latest developments.

"This is the first time we've seen a major candidate for president say he'd probably vote for legalizing marijuana if given the chance," notes the Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell in a statement shared with Westword. "That says a lot about how far the politics on this issue have shifted in a very short amount of time. As a point of reference, in 2008 no major candidate even supported decriminalization when asked in a debate, and our movement had to chase them around New Hampshire and repeatedly harass them just to garner pledges to stop federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana patients. Legalization is at the forefront of mainstream American politics, and politicians are starting to treat it as such.”

Adds Aaron Smith, executive director of the Denver-based National Cannabis Industry Association: “Despite differing specifics on marijuana policy, nearly every presidential candidate — Democrat and Republican — has now offered support for the continuation of state policy reforms. Given that the 2016 election is likely to result in several new states with legal medical or adult-use marijuana programs, that’s a critical piece of progress.”

Continue to see three videos: the first juxtaposing Sanders' marijuana comments with Clinton's, the second focusing on Clinton's full remarks regarding the subject and the third offering a look at the debate as a whole. That's followed by the transcript from the marijuana portion of the conversation, featuring CNN's Anderson Cooper and Juan Carlos Lopez, as well as Sanders and Clinton.

Partial transcript:
COOPER: Governor, thank you. The issue now, particularly in this state, is recreational marijuana. I want to go to Juan Carlos Lopez.

LOPEZ: Thank you, Anderson.

Senator Sanders, right here in Nevada, there will be a measure to legalize recreational marijuana on the 2016 ballot. You've said you smoked marijuana twice; it didn't quite work for you. If you were a Nevada resident, how would you vote?

SANDERS: I suspect I would vote yes.


And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana. I think we have to think through this war on drugs...


SANDERS: ...which has done an enormous amount of damage. We need to rethink our criminal justice system, we we've got a lot of work to do in that area.

O'MALLEY: Juan Carlos?


LOPEZ: Secretary Clinton, you told Christiane Amanpour you didn't smoke pot when you were young, and you're not going to start now.


LOPEZ: When asked about legalizing recreational marijuana, you told her let's wait and see how it plays out in Colorado and Washington. It's been more than a year since you've said that. Are you ready to take a position tonight?

CLINTON: No. 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, and I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we're going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief.

So, 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. Therefore, we need more states, cities, and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don't have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts