Bernie Sanders Unveils Plan to Legalize Cannabis

2019 was a strong year for cannabis legalization efforts across America.  With moves to decriminalize in New York, Hawaii, North Dakota and New Mexico, as well as full legalization in Illinois, the last ten months have seen tremendous progress.

But with 2020 inching closer and closer, and the US general election on the horizon, all eyes are now squarely on the Democratic presidential nominees and their plans for pot.

And while we’ve heard quite a bit on the topic from a number of the candidates, none have been as vocal as Bernie Sanders.  On October 24th (at precisely 4:20pm EST) Sanders unveiled his plan to legalize cannabis at the federal level through executive action within his first 100 days in office.

Here’s what we know so far about the proposed move:

The Details Of Bernie’s Plan

Sanders’ plan not only provides a comprehensive framework for legalization, but also a vision for what the cannabis industry would look like under his administration.

Executive Action

Sanders has pledged that, if elected, he would sign an executive order instructing the attorney general to declassify cannabis as a controlled substance, effectively descheduling and removing it from the Controlled Substances Act.  

The move would be unprecedented, and would represent an enormous leap forward, as the classification of cannabis as a controlled substance represents an enormous roadblock.  

Not only has it helped facilitate the utterly disastrous “war on drugs”, but it’s also created a catastrophic mess at the state level.  Cannabis businesses in many legal states have been forced to conduct major transactions in cash, and have been unable to secure financing from banks wary of violating federal law.

Criminal Justice Issues

In addition to issuing executive action, a number of issues surrounding the criminal justice system and how it has historically treated marijuana will also be addressed.

Sanders has not only vowed to push for an expungement of past convictions, but also for the creation of a clemency board for those currently being sentenced for cannabis-related offenses.  The board would instruct authorities to review current cases and potentially grant convicts relief from their sentences.

He’s also made a pledge to create a number of federal grants and funds to assist those who have been most victimized by current drug policies.  This includes a $10 billion fund for communities disproportionately affected by the drug war (communities of color in particular), as well as a $10 billion USDA grant program for those living in these communities to start growing operations, effectively providing them with better access to the burgeoning cannabis industry. 

The plan also includes a $20 million grant program for entrepreneurs of color, and a $10 million grant program for “businesses that are at least 51% owned or controlled by those in disproportionately impacted areas or individuals who have been arrested for or convicted of marijuana offenses”.

These initiatives would be funded by tax revenue generated from the industry.

Regulation Of The Cannabis Industry

Sanders has also given some indication as to how the industry would be regulated under his watch.

This includes restrictions on packaging and marketing to young people similar to what we’ve seen in the Canadian model.  

But it also includes restrictions on who can participate in the new industry.  Sanders was adamant that cannabis not turn into the next “big tobacco”, and even went as far as to propose banning tobacco companies from participating and investing in pot (although the plan doesn’t explain how exactly they would be barred from participation).

Sanders was adamant that cannabis not turn into the next “big tobacco”
Image Courtesy of Markus Spiske

In addition to keeping certain elements out, he’s also proposed “market share and franchise caps to prevent consolidation and profiteering”.

Impact On The Cannabis Industry

Based on the details we know right now, Sanders legalization would very much be a mixed bag for the cannabis industry.

On the one hand, descheduling at the federal level would be a huge weight off the shoulders of American companies.  This is particularly true for the “plant touching” side of the business (dispensaries, growers, cultivators, etc). Not only are they typically seen as being “higher risk” by banks and investors, but thanks to the discrepancy between federal and state law, they also have to navigate through a complex labyrinth of rules and workarounds (or risk being prosecuted at the federal level).

Federal descheduling would also allow the US industry to better connect with their Canadian counterparts.

On the other hand, Sanders’ plan to implement market share and franchise caps could spell trouble for a number of the bigger players as they try to get their expansion plans off the ground.

Finally, there’s the issue of the tobacco industry and the plans to keep them out.  British tobacco giant Imperial Brands has already invested in Auxley, while Altria owns 45% of Cronos Group, and the proposed ban on participation would no doubt hamper their expansion plans.

The Other Candidates

A number of other Democratic nominees have expressed their public support for reforming America’s marijuana laws.  Corey Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang have all called for cannabis to be legalized federally.

And even among those who don’t support full legalization, there has been a recognition that serious changes need to be made.  Joe Biden, for example, has come out in favor of decriminalizing and expunging criminal records.  He’s also in favor of allowing individual states to decide whether or not they want to legalize.

Joe Biden has come out in favor of decriminalizing and expunging criminal records
Joe Biden: Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore

When it comes to American public opinion, it seems that the tide has finally turned – and in a big way.  Support for legalization reached a whopping 66% in 2018, with some studies even indicating that a majority of Republicans are now in favor of going legal (from 46% in 2016 to 54% in 2018).

But while the majority of nominees have voiced their support for legalization in some form or fashion, no one so far has put forward anything nearly as far reaching as Sanders.  Committing to legalize via executive action and to do so within the first 100 days of his presidency represents a huge commitment, and one that will hopefully raise the bar for the other candidates.