What Bernie Sanders’ Election Would Mean for Legalized Drugs

By Brendan Murray GoLocal Providence

Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called America’s “War on Drugs” a failure and has promised to transform America’s drug policy if elected to the White House.

So what would that look like?

Sanders has said he plans to end the program that has spent more than $51 billion annually and more than $1 trillion since 1980, according to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance.

The independent Senator from Vermont says its time to stop spending money and resources punishing and imprisoning non-violent offenders. He’s proposed treating the underlying mental health issues that cause drug addiction and legalizing marijuana use.

“Millions of lives have been destroyed because people are in jail for nonviolent crimes,” Sanders’ campaign website reads. “For decades, we have been engaged in a failed ‘War on Drugs’ with racially-biased mandatory minimums that punish people of color unfairly. It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy.”

DC Track Record

Sanders’ voting record backs up his stance on drugs. During his time on Capitol Hill, Sanders made a number of votes against the enforcement of America’s drug policies.

As a Representative in September 1998, Sanders voted against subjecting federal employees to random drug tests. He voted to legalize medical marijuana in July of 2001, and voted against military border patrol to help battle drug trafficking in September of the same year. After being elected to the Senate in 2007, Sanders voted twice to exempt industrial hemp from marijuana prohibition, once in August of 2012 and again in March of 2013.

The election of Sanders, or any candidate who backs the end of the federal War on Drugs, would be a “welcome change” to the country’s drug policy, according to Chris Brown, press secretary for Americans for Safe Access.

“It’s a failed policy,” Brown told GoLocal. “Repealing the War on Drugs would allow the public to see marijuana, and all drugs, in a nonidelogical view and allow them to analyze it for all its properties.”

Brown also said the repeal of the War on Drugs would ensure that patients who depend on the drug to treat legitimate maladies, particularly pain relief, can receive their medicine without fear of becoming an outlaw.

Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told GoLocal the criminalization of cannabis is a “disproportionate response to what is at worst, a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.”

Armentano also said that those prosecuted for cannabis-related crimes are disproportionately minorities and young people. This can cause them to distrust government and law enforcement agencies. “This disenfranchises entire cohorts of U.S. citizens who, rather than see law enforcement agencies as protectors, see them as instruments of their oppression.”

He also responded to critics’ claims that legalization will allow teenagers and children freer access to marijuana. He said that criminalizing the substance had not proven effective, and it was time for new techniques.

“Alcohol and tobacco use in teenagers was not driven down by illegalizing these substances for adults, but by educating the target audience and imposing and enforcing age requirements,” he explained. “I don’t see why that would not work when it comes to cannabis.”

‘Not so fast’ say critics
Ron Brogan, a spokesman for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, known more commonly as D.A.R.E., told GoLocal that despite the assertion by legalization advocates that prohibition has failed, drug use is declining.

“The story that’s not really told is that the drug policing efforts in place are working,” he said. “Cocaine use is down nearly 85 percent since its peak, and drug use in general is significantly down. Prohibition is working.”

Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation, echoed Brogan’s claims.

“Alcohol is legal for adults and society has done a dismal job of keeping it from our young people, and the same can be said for cigarettes,” she told GoLocal. “Advocates like to ignore that when this country really went after drugs in this country, overall drug use fell by more than 50%. That is not a failure”

Brogan also said that the prohibition of marijuana is the best way to keep drugs like marijuana from falling into the hands of children.

“When the United States government puts an age-restriction down on something like that, the message that is sent is, ‘this is not that bad,’” he said. “That it’s okay for everyone except teenagers, and that does not prove to be effective.”

Fay also addressed claims that drug enforcement laws are used to target minorities and young people. She admitted that there are times when laws are used to target those groups, but said drug laws are not to blame.

“If you look at who is and isn’t in prison, you’ll see that there are not thousands of minorities rotting away in prison because they had a small amount of marijuana,” she said. “That’s a myth.”