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Will Sanders Follow Debate Comments With Legislative Action on Marijuana?

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Sen. Bernie Sanders made history on Tuesday night by becoming the first major presidential candidate to say he’d personally vote to legalize marijuana.

“I suspect I would vote yes,” Sanders said when asked during CNN’s Democratic primary debate in Nevada about the marijuana legalization initiative that’s likely to appear on the state’s ballot next November. “I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for nonviolent 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.”

The politics of marijuana have shifted considerably since the last Democratic presidential primary. In 2007 and 2008, reform advocates had to actively chase candidates around New Hampshire and repeatedly ask them to pledge just to stop federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana patients.

During the current cycle, in contrast, several candidates are proactively touting stances in favor of not only medical cannabis, but support for marijuana decriminalization and scaling back federal laws so that states can implement their own legalization policies. And even most Republican candidates are on board with letting states legalize marijuana without federal harassment.

But Sanders, who for months has said he’s examining the roll-out of legalization in Colorado to help inform his personal position on ending prohibition, is the first — and for now, only — major candidate to say he’d vote yes on legalization if given the chance.

As such, Marijuana Policy Project, which earlier this year issued a report card tracking candidate positions on the issue, upgraded Sanders from a B to an A following Tuesday’s debate.

MPP report card

But while Sanders has co-sponsored federal medical cannabis and industrial hemp bills in the past, he has not yet signed his name on to any Congressional marijuana reform legislation this session. And that has left some supporters wondering whether he is planning to make a big announcement to roll out a comprehensive marijuana reform platform.

“I will have more to say about this issue within the coming months,” he wrote on Reddit in May.

In August, he said legalization is “an issue that we are looking at, and we don’t have a definitive answer right now… This is something that I think we need to take a hard look at, and we are taking a hard look at it. So pay attention, and I suspect that within the next month or so, maybe longer, we’ll have something more definitive to say about that.”

But the big announcement never came, at least not until CNN’s Anderson Cooper directly asked Sanders on Tuesday night how he would vote on a legalization ballot measure if given the chance.

Post-debate comments from Sanders staffers indicate that more could be coming soon.

MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald tweeted this:

And BuzzFeed reported:

After the debate, advocates said it’s time for Sanders to become the face of marijuana legalization in the Senate.

“It would be politically beneficial for him to introduce legislation in the Senate ending federal marijuana prohibition,” [Drug Policy Alliance’s Bill] Piper said.

The Sanders campaign, however, is taking things more slowly.

“He was asked a question about marijuana legalization, and I think he gave the answer he gave, and I think it was the right answer given what we’ve seen with the impact of the war on drugs,” Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for Sanders, told BuzzFeed News after the debate ended.

This could be an indication that the campaign sees value in making news later with more pro-legalization talk. If Sanders’s team is indeed planning a comprehensive marijuana platform that includes support for legalization, they’ll want its official rollout to be perceived as news so that it generates the most coverage possible.

For now, though, the debate comments from Sanders himself put his position squarely in line with the majority of Americans — and supermajority of Democratic voters — who polls show support legalization.

Click here to see what else Bernie Sanders and other presidential candidates have said about marijuana law reform.

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