Is Bernie Sanders as Marijuana-Friendly as He Should Be?

Those in favor of progressive marijuana policies really want to love Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whose insurgent candidacy for President has the potential of making Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton's predicted smooth ride to the nomination a little bumpier.

But he's not making it as easy as they'd like.

Example? A new opinion piece on Weedblog sports the headline "Marijuana Legalization Activists Should Support Bernie Sanders For President." But even as he portrays Sanders in positive terms from a ganja perspective, author Wiz Kaliko acknowledges that "we just need to push him to take some concrete steps in his capacity as Senator from Vermont to support legislation that his colleague Rand Paul has already signed on to."

Sanders has been asked about marijuana a lot lately, since so many of his backers support recreational legalization of the sort that Colorado voters approved in November 2012 — but even though taking this position could prove advantageous, he's been reticent to embrace it.

During an interview earlier this year, Katie Couric asked Sanders if he was really, as he's joked, "the only person who didn't get high in the Sixties" when he moved to Vermont.

In response, he made a joke about marijuana costing too much before complaining that the fumes made him cough. Then, after acknowledging that "I smoked marijuana twice and it didn't quite work for me," he added, "It's not my thing, but it is the thing of a whole lot of people. And if you want to make the argument that marijuana is less harmful to health than tobacco, I think you'd probably be making a correct argument."

Seconds later, however, he offered what was characterized as "the other side of the story," saying, "If you talk to law-enforcement folks, they see this as an entry-level drug, which leads to coke, which leads to heroin.

"What I can tell you is this," he went on. "We have far, far, far, far, far too many people in jail for non-violent crimes...and I think in many ways, the War Against Drugs has not been successful. And I think we need to rethink that. When I was mayor of the Town of Burlington, which has a large university, and one or two of the kids were smoking marijuana, we suspect, we didn't arrest too many people for marijuana.

"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."

Here's the key section of the Couric interview:

More recently, at a rally in Portland, Oregon, that drew an enormous crowd of 28,000, Sanders used referred to cannabis, and punishment for it, i the context of an anti-Wall Street comment.

"And brothers and sisters, when we talk about greed, when we talk about arrogance, when we talk about thievery, these are just some of the words to describe what goes on in Wall Street," he told the crowd. "The greed, recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street drove this country into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression — and today, I find it interesting, by the way, that we see kids getting criminal records for having marijuana, but the CEOs of these large institutions get away with nothing."

The throng reacted with an enormous cheer.

Here's Sanders's Portland speech. The comment above pops up at around the 25:28 mark.

When it comes to Sanders's actual positions on marijuana and other drugs, notes that he opposes "military border patrols to battle drugs & terrorism," and is also against "subjecting federal employees to random drug tests."

Likewise, he favors states rights on medical marijuana and would like to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana and cannabis laws in general.

Otherwise, though, he's "pretty timid when it comes to legalization," the Washington Post opined in a June article with a memorable headline: "On marijuana, Bernie Sanders is kind of a disappointing socialist ex-hippie."

Granted, Sanders is whipping up plenty of enthusiasm these days without coming down in favor of backing Colorado-style marijuana laws on either the state or federal level. But when we reach the period when actual caucuses and primaries are taking place, it'll be interesting to see if this proud progressive takes a step forward — or a step back.
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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