But since then, Sanders had become more progressive about cannabis — and now, a recent poll suggests that he's got a real shot to defeat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the March 1 Colorado caucus thanks to his revised marijuana policies.
Sanders hasn't always seemed comfortable taking on the mantle of marijuana reformer.
During a mid-2015 interview, as we've reported, 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, his political base of operations.
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:
Comments like these led the Washington Post to brand Sanders "pretty timid when it comes to legalization" in a June 2015 article with a memorable headline: "On marijuana, Bernie Sanders is kind of a disappointing socialist ex-hippie."
Perceptions began to change after an October 2015 debate in Las Vegas.
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."
The debate moment is captured in this video:
These four words were celebrated at the time by observers such as the Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell, who told us, "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. 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.”
Despite his statement, Clinton defeated Sanders in the Nevada caucus this past Saturday. But his chances are looking better in Colorado.
As reported by The Hill, a Washington Free Beacon poll released this past Friday showed that Sanders had turned a 28 point deficit to Clinton in Colorado circa November into a four-point advantage, 49 percent to 43 percent.
Moreover, 58 percent of survey respondents who said that marijuana legalization was "very good" backed Sanders. In contrast, the Hill item points out, "Clinton leads by a 44-32 margin among those who think the law has had a negative effect on the state."
Clinton isn't an anti-pot zealot, but as pointed out in a Motley Fool piece about the marijuana approaches of the remaining candidates, she's much more cautious on the issue.
Here's the MF blurb about Clinton and cannabis....
Clinton, the other Democratic Party front-runner, has a far less progressive view from her main rival Bernie Sanders, although it's worth noting that Clinton's stance on marijuana has evolved in line with the opinion of the general public. When it comes to medical marijuana Clinton is completely in favor of ongoing research into the potential benefits of the drug, but would likely restrict access (until all the safety data is in) to extreme cases of need/compassionate use. By a similar token, Clinton has taken a wait-and-see approach to recreational marijuana. She doesn't appear to have an issue with states legalizing and regulating the drug on their own, but she's been clear that nothing would change federally until a complete safety profile of marijuana has been established....and the one in regard to Sanders:
There aren't too many candidates in this year's election that are willing to take the previously taboo stance of calling for marijuana's full legalization, both medically and recreationally, at the federal level, but this year Democratic Party candidate Bernie Sanders has done just that. In fact, Sanders introduced legislation, known as the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, in the Senate during November, making his views on the illicit substance very clear. While Sanders has stated that marijuana "wasn't for him," he views the drug war on marijuana as wasting government resources. If you are strongly in favor of sweeping marijuana legislation, Bernie Sanders is the candidate you'll want to be closely monitoring.Marijuana may not be to Sanders's personal taste, but it's certainly working for him in Colorado and beyond. Consider a February 22 Washington Post item about a speech in South Carolina, where he's trailing Clinton; the Dems in that state will weigh in on February 27. The paper says that Sanders's biggest applause lines during the address involved free college and decriminalizing marijuana.
What a difference a few months make.