Bernie Sanders Wants To End The Federal Marijuana Ban, Conservatives Should Support Him

Senator Bernie Sanders wants to let states decide how to regulate marijuana, or to not regulate it at all if they choose. Intellectually honest conservatives should support his effort.


Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill that would lift the Federal ban on marijuana and allow individual states to decide the issue for themselves:

Democratic presidential candidate and Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill Wednesday to end the federal prohibition on marijuana, the first such bill to ever be introduced in the Senate, according to marijuana legalization advocates.

Sanders went farther than any other presidential candidate last week on the question of ending the drug war when he called for lifting the federal ban on marijuana, and he followed up this week by introducing a bill in the Senate to remove marijuana from the federal government’s list of Schedule I drugs, which includes other illegal substances such as heroin and LSD.

“It is absurd that it is compared to, or treated, the same way as heroin is,” Sanders told The Daily Beast Tuesday.

Last week, Sanders told an audience of college students that ending marijuana prohibition was essential to ending racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“Although about the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana, a black person is almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person,” Sanders said. “Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use.”

Marijuana legalization advocates praised Sanders’ bill.

“This is the first time a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition has been introduced in the U.S. Senate,” Tom Angell, the chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority, told BuzzFeed News. “A growing majority of Americans want states to be able to enact their own marijuana laws without harassment from the DEA, and lawmakers should listen.”

The bill would not legalize marijuana, but rather leave its legal status up to individual states. It would ban interstate transport of marijuana, but it is still the most wide-sweeping marijuana bill to be introduced in the Senate, which is traditionally more reserved than the House on this issue.

As noted, this is an issue that Sanders has spoken about before, most prominently last week when he first suggested on the campaign trial that the Federal Government’s decision to classify marijuana as a drug as dangerous as heroin and cocaine made absolutely no sense and had absolutely no medical merit, an argument that many doctors and drug policy experts have made in the past. In reality, the decision to classify marijuana as a Class One drug is one that was made by the Food and Drug Administration, meaning that at least theoretically it could be reversed by that agency as well. The reality, of course, has been that the political pressures of the War On Drugs and the desire of Presidential Administrations going back to Richard Nixon to appear to be “tough” on drugs and crime has made any sane medical analysis of this issue impossible. Indeed, the FDA’s classification is so bizarrely extreme that it is essentially impossible for researches to study marijuana or its active ingredients for possible medical benefits even independent of smoking marijuana leaves. The classification also means that people who live in those jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana such as Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska or the District of Columbia, or the even more numerous ones that have decriminalized marijuana or legalized it for medical use are taking a tremendous legal risk since they may still be liable for prosecution under Federal laws, many of which have far harsher penalties than comparable state laws. The Obama Administration has taken the position that it would not crackdown on marijuana use, sale, or harvesting inside states where it has been legalized, but this is purely an exercise of prosecutorial discretion that could be revoked by a subsequent Administration. In that regard, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has repeatedly stated during his Presidential campaign that he would end that policy and enforce Federal laws even in states where marijuana sale, use, and possession are completely legal. Additionally, when the District of Columbia’s voters approved marijuana legalization in a referendum the Republican controlled House threatened to use its control over the D.C. budget to reverse the referendum, although it never followed through on that threat. Given that, the entire status of legal marijuana remains in legal limbo that depends entirely on the beneficence of whomever happens to be President and Attorney General. Sanders bill is designed to address that issue.

There are not many issues where I agree with Senator Sanders, but this is most certainly one of them. Based on all of the available literature, there is not rational basis for treating marijuana the same way we treat “hard” drugs like cocaine and heroin. For example, it has never been shown to be addictive in the way that those drugs are in both a physical and psychological sense. Nor has it been shown to be as harmful as those drugs, as well as other substances such as amphetamines and barbiturates, have been shown to be. Yes, there are risks from smoking marijuana but they are basically the same risks one takes from smoking tobacco, which is entirely legal. Furthermore, the fact that marijuana is illegal has not stopped people from using it and its illegal status has created a black market that empowers organized criminal gangs the same way that alcohol prohibition did in the 1920s Beyond that, though, it is clear that the public is ready for marijuana to treated far more sanely than we are currently treating it. Polling shows that support for legalization nationwide is well over 50% now and, notwithstanding this week’s defeat of a flawed legalization initiative in Ohio the political momentum for legalization shows no signs of abating and looks to be as though it will be a big issue in many states next year. Given that, the idea that Federal law would end up treating an increasing number of American states as being places that harbor Federal criminals is utterly absurd.

On a final note, it strikes me that this ought to be an issue that conservative Republicans could agree with Sanders on if they really treated his proposal seriously. Notwithstanding Chris Christie’s reefer madness, the idea of allowing the states to chose what laws regarding marijuana are appropriate for them is something that fits right within the conservative preference for federalism and the ability of the states to chose their own course on issues not specifically addressed by the Constitution. Passing this bill would effectively mean that marijuana will be treated the same way that alcohol has been since the passage of the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition and allowed states to set their own laws regarding alcohol. Using that authority, the manner in which alcohol is treated, and how and where it can be sold, varies from state to state even today. One can argue that one state’s laws are better than another state’s for some reason, but the point is that each state has the right to choose their own path. That should be the case with marijuana too, and Republicans should get behind an idea like this.

Don’t hold your breath that they will, though.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Crime, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. steve s says:

    “Look, we understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure,” Ehrlichman confessed. “We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue for the Nixon White House that we couldn’t resist it.”

  2. Davebo says:
  3. michael reynolds says:

    Infinitely less harmful than legal alcohol. Infinitely less harmful than tobacco since a link to cancer has not been shown and, in any event, outside of Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson people don’t tend to smoke two packs of joints a day.

  4. PJ says:

    Intellectually honest conservatives

    Doug, could you please give some examples of this mythical creature? Not any of those that in the tales used to roam the political world, but some that are currently serving in Congress.

  5. bill says:

    states rights should trump this- no pun intended. i just hope they don’t let the atf rule it- that would be rough. people should be able to grow their own stash, but maybe not sell in mass quantities ? i’m not for some big corporations taking over and then sicking the atf on casual growers/users.

  6. CB says:

    Burn one for Bernie?

  7. JohnMcC says:

    Anyone who writes seriously that “…there are risks from smoking marijuana but they are basically the same risks one takes from smoking tobacco…” has confessed to an amazing ignorance concerning cannabis. Delta-9 THC and CBD (canabidiol) have demonstrated anti-tumor activity both in vivo and in vito. Facts are easily found if someone has some reluctance to appear stupid.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @bill: States don’t have rights. Citizens do.

  9. Guarneri says:


    I didn’t know the Don smoked.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    Pot is legal in Oregon now and the local electric utility announced that 20% of their transformer outages were the result of people growing pot indoors. A single pot plant requites the same amount of electricity of 4 refrigerators..

  11. Guarneri says:

    “On a final note, it strikes me that this ought to be an issue that conservative Republicans could agree with Sanders on if they really treated his proposal seriously. ”

    This one would, as I suspect would quite a few others, notwithstanding the usual inane assertions of the OTB commenters.

  12. Guarneri says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Well there you have it. The global warming crowd pitted against the stoners. Cage match. Get your popcorn.

  13. Tyrell says:

    This is certainy something that should be decided at the state and county/town levels.

  14. Davebo says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Let’s just say I’m dubious of that claim. First, a single pot plant doesn’t require any more electricity than 6 pot plants sucking on the same grow lamp.

  15. Davebo says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Additionally, when a public utility comes up with a nice round 20% figure to explain away their failure to serve their customers with, assumably, no data to support the claim the fish smell is strong.

  16. Rafer Janders says:

    On a final note, it strikes me that this ought to be an issue that conservative Republicans could agree with Sanders on if they really treated his proposal seriously.

    To paraphrase Internet commenter cleek, conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want, updated daily. The very fact Bernie Sanders supports something will now be reason enough for conservatives to oppose it, even thought that thing is supposedly in line with their principles. But it’s important to remember that these principles are entirely notional and are ready to be abandoned at the first sign that they may lead to a solution that a liberal agrees with.

  17. Tyrell says:

    @Ron Beasley: Can these so called “pot” plants not be grown outside ?
    Does this stuff need to be “cured”, as in tobacco ? Can it be made into a chewing form or be used in pipes ? Are there different grades of it, like tobacco ? Are the big tobacco companies interested in this stuff ? Pardon my ignorance. I grew up in an age where tobacco was used in full force. Most people smoked, except my immediate family. I also was around pipe smokers (great aroma), cigars (very popular at ball games), snuff (usually older people until the “smokeless” tobacco craze of the ’70’s, the “Skoal Bandit”), and chewing tobacco. I knew evety cigarette commercial by heart !
    I did not try the stuff – I was somewhat of a health nut. I did try chewing tobacco once: a guy kept offering me some Cannon Ball. I got so sick I missed out on a nice trip to the amusement park.
    Beech Nut, Chattanooga Chew, Days Work, Lancaster are big brands.
    Restaurants were full of smoke.
    From what I have read, these marijuana cigarettes are not harmful or carcinogenic. Just what do most medical experts say ? How about the AMA, what do their studies say ?

  18. DrDaveT says:

    the idea of allowing the states to chose what laws regarding marijuana are appropriate for them is something that fits right within the conservative preference for federalism and the ability of the states to chose their own course on issues not specifically addressed by the Constitution

    Sorry, no. The association between conservatism and federalism is a contingent fact of US history. There’s nothing about conservative philosophy that implies a distaste for large government, nor is there anything inherently conservative about preferring local corruption to large bureaucracy. The link is established by the fact that the wealthy and powerful incline both to preserving the status quo and to resisting outside interference by meddlesome governments. And the idea that extreme deference to the Constitution reflects conservative values is laughable — not merely because conservatism predates the Constitution, but because the Framers would certainly not have considered themselves conservatives.

    Any genuine Libertarians out there will side with Senator Sanders because they object to anything at all being regulated. But Libertarians don’t generally agree with conservatives about much of anything except their common resentment of being told what to do.

  19. michael reynolds says:


    1) At this time there is no credible scientific evidence that pot causes any health problem at all. There is literally no fatal dosage for pot. The only way to die directly from weed is to be crushed by a bale of it.

    2) There is some very weak evidence that pot is beneficial. There is stronger evidence that pot is very beneficial in some cases of epilepsy, and it may help cancer patients on chemo eat and keep their weight up.

    3) We don’t have more hard science in part because the government has refused to support objective research into pot.

    4) Some people can become psychologically dependent on pot. It is not physically addictive.

    5) There is evidence (weak for now) that pot has a small effect on brain development in the young.

    That’s what I know about it. I would add that if you want something to chill you out at the end of the day either alcohol or weed will do the job, but weed has zero calories and no proven, serious negative health impact.

    Oh and don’t drive stoned. Potheads drive 20 miles under the speed limit and tend to linger at red lights.

  20. t says:

    @michael reynolds:

    weed has zero calories

    these cheetos though…

  21. Tyrell says:

    @michael reynolds: Thanks for the info. Certain family members tell me I drive like that.

  22. Grewgills says:

    There is only one inherent negative side effect of pot and it isn’t permanent. Pot has short term effects on short term memory. The only other negative side effects are associated with the manner of consumption. If you eat it, drink it, or use a vaporizer there aren’t any additional negative side effects. If you choose to inhale flaming hot particulates there are inherent dangers to that regardless of what the particulates are.

  23. Grewgills says:

    Can these so called “pot” plants not be grown outside ?

    Yes, but it can’t be controlled as well as indoors and if there are any male plants nearby your plants can go to seed.

    Does this stuff need to be “cured”, as in tobacco ?

    It needs to be dried to be smoked.

    Can it be made into a chewing form or be used in pipes ?

    I’ve never heard of chewing it, but the canabinoids will dissolve in oils or alcohol so it can be eaten or drunk.

    Are there different grades of it, like tobacco ?

    There are two main varieties Indica (lower in THC, but higher in accessory canabinoids) and Sativa (higher in THC, but lower in accessory canabinoids). There are definitely grades based on both taste and levels of THC and other canabinoids. Some of the dispensaries in CA test for levels and post the results with the product. The strongest Sativas I’ve seen are in the neighborhood of 20% THC.

    Are the big tobacco companies interested in this stuff ?


  24. walt moffett says:

    Agreed true conservatives (as defined here) should back it, yet, electoral politics and general mulishness will prevail. Though legalization and state/local taxation means they would deliver on a promise to cut property and or income taxes and so be acceptable. Then there’s monopolies as is done with beer in some states, score a victory for public health, etc,

    The fun will be seeing what Clinton does, s sudden display of dexterity with Rizla licorice flavored rolling papers or maybe HRC enamel pin with a curious bit of long wire?

  25. anjin-san says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    A single pot plant requites the same amount of electricity of 4 refrigerators..

    Where does this come from? My wife almost always has seedlings (vegetables, not pot) under the grow lights. I have not noticed any surge in our electric use. I don’t think pot requires more night that other plants.

  26. Grewgills says:

    @Ron Beasley:
    The rule of thumb for growing is 100W for the first plant and an additional 50W per additional plant. I’m pretty sure a 100W bulb doesn’t use 4x the energy of your average refrigerator. If grow houses are responsible for that much of the drain there are converted warehouses.

  27. MarkedMan says:

    @anjin-san: a little googling showed me that a modern refrigerator on average consumes about the same electricity as a ( now old fashioned ) 60 watt light bulb. So if the statistic is correct, “using as much electricity as four refrigerators” is about the equivalent of leaving the lights on in your living room. Or less.

  28. steve s says:

    @Davebo: I just did some rough numbers (physics degree back in the day) and you could conceivably dream up scenarios where grow lights and refrigerators use comparable energy.

    But I don’t much give a shit, since the War on Some People Who Use Some Drugs is a moral catastrophe worse than all the other things Nixon ever did, including getting thousands of Americans killed in Vietnam for his political benefit.

  29. Matt says:

    @Ron Beasley: Your fridge doesn’t use much in the way of power as it shouldn’t be running 24/7. When running Fridges usually max out around 400 watts (average is probably around 250 watts). Your central A/C on the other hand can pull 5000 watts pretty easily.

    The best grow lamps right now are LEDs.. You know those low powered light emitting diodes that use <300 watts? A 300 watt light is good enough for 7 square feet of plants. That's at least 49 plants worth of light. If you use the sea of green technique then you're looking at +3 pounds worth of harvest.

    Even if people are using HPS or HID lamps that's still under 1000 watts. Most home growers would be running under 500 watts in lamps just due to grow room sized limits and the limits in the law. That's like leaving 5-10 light bulbs on.

    Anyway you only run the lamps 24/7 for a couple months before switching to a normal 12 on 12 off cycle for flowering.

    If that's crushing the power distribution system in Oregon then there's some serious trouble coming up as power consumption demands for consumer products continue to expand.