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Bernie Sanders Introduces Bill to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

Bernie Sanders Introduces Bill to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

On Nov. 4, 2015, two days before the last Democratic debate, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt introduced the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2015” in the Senate. Were it to become law, it would remove marijuana from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of the “most dangerous” drugs and strike marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.


It’s a little early to bet the farm on that. But many see Sanders’ move as part of a shift in the conversation, a glimmer of hope that reform can eventually be accomplished on the federal level.


The bill removes all references to marijuana and tetrahydrocannabinols from the Controlled Substances Act. In addition, it strikes references to marijuana from the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act, thereby removing restrictions that prevent the U.S. from participating in international marijuana transactions. However, it retains the restrictions on moving marijuana across national and state borders in violation of any U.S. or State law. This leaves states free to decide whether to legalize.


Sanders has arrived at his position on legalization through the lens of criminal justice reform. As he told Katic Couric,


We have far, far, far too many people in jail for nonviolent crimes, and I think in many ways, the war against drugs has not been successful, and I think we’ve got to rethink that.


Nothing much has happened yet and the general feeling is that chances of passage are slim. But in context, the move is encouraging.  In late August, the office of Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-OR put together a matrix of all marijuana-related bills in Congress from this session and last session. There are twenty-three of them, including:


  • The “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act” was reintroduced earlier this year by Representative Jared Polis, D-CO and closely resembles the Sanders bill.
  • The “Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015” or CARERS Act, designed to limit federal enforcement action with regard to state-regulated medical marijuana has been introduced in both the House and the Senate.
  • The “Clean Slate for Marijuana Offenses Act,” pending in the House, would permit the expungement of records of certain federal marijuana-related offenses.
  • The “Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act,” which has also been introduced in both the House and Senate, would create protections for banks that provide financial services to marijuana-related businesses.
  • The “Small Business Tax Equity Act,” also pending in both the House and Senate, would amend the Internal Revenue Code to allow tax deductions for normal business expenses for marijuana businesses operating in compliance with state law.


Before the talk of inevitability begins, however, it is important to note that most are given between a zero and one percent chance of passage. Nonetheless, talk of federal legalization is apparently no longer political suicide.


There is also an international aspect to the issue of marijuana policy that was not previously present. Legalizing marijuana had been a key plank of Justin Trudeau’s successful campaign for Prime Minister. On the same day that Sanders introduced his measure, the Mexican Supreme Court held that individuals have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their personal use, a move that lead Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to say that he would open a national debate to review the country’s marijuana laws ahead of a key United Nations meeting next year.


The Sanders bill is unique among other pieces of legislation because it is more comprehensive. It calls for de-scheduling cannabis, rather than simply moving it to a lesser category of dangerous drugs or making specific exceptions for legal marijuana commerce in federal tax, banking or criminal law.


Changes in state law may ease the concerns of recreational cannabis users and patients. But it will take federal action to cut the Gordian knot for legal businesses, open banking services, lift a crippling tax burden and give cannabis start-ups access to federal bankruptcy relief when the grim necessity arises. Federal reform is far from a done deal. but the fact that it has now become a topic for discussion in the early days of the presidential campaign is a promising sign.