Vermont senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill late Wednesday that would end the federal prohibition on marijuana, empowering states to legalize the drug for recreational or medicinal purposes without fear of federal intervention.
Early coverage of Sanders’s bill described it as a bid to “legalize pot across the U.S.” and suggested that the proposal would help the insurgent candidate distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton. But if the Democratic front-runner is sincere in her stated positions on marijuana policy, she should be a staunch supporter of Sanders’s new legislation.
It’s true that Clinton is more conservative on pot than the socialist senator from the land of Birkenstocks and Ben & Jerry’s. At the first Democratic primary debate, Sanders said that he would probably vote in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana, while Clinton said she would not. But contrary to many of the headlines it generated, Sanders’s bill would not legalize weed at the federal level. It would merely make our current federal compromise on the issue an honest one, allowing states the freedom to legalize or prohibit the drug as they wish while eliminating the barriers to more marijuana research.
At present, four states have legalized recreational marijuana in defiance of federal law. The tension between Colorado’s pot policy and Uncle Sam’s has received plenty of press attention, but the precarious status of medical marijuana is often overlooked. A less “420 friendly” administration would not only have the legal authority to shutter dispensaries in Denver — it would also have the power to uphold the federal ban on medical marijuana in the 23 states that allow for its use.
The federal government currently groups marijuana with heroin in Schedule 1, the category reserved for the most dangerous illegal drugs. A substance qualifies as Schedule 1 if it has a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical purpose.
But while the U.S. government hasn’t recognized weed’s medical utility, plenty of its citizens have — including Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I do support the use of medical marijuana,” Clinton said during last month’s debate. “And I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we’re going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief.”
As long as marijuana remains a Schedule 1 substance, the research that Clinton advocates for will remain nearly impossible. Right now scientists are only allowed to conduct research on marijuana after receiving approval from the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency* — a process so cumbersome there remain few rigorous studies into the effects of the drug, which is prescribed to more than 1 million Americans each year.
In just the last month, Clinton has said that the federal government should not interfere with states experimenting with full marijuana legalization, expressed her support for medical weed, and called for extensive new research into the substance. All three of these positions are contrary to current federal law, and all three will remain so until Sanders’s bill, or another like it, is passed.
The only plausible policy objection Clinton may have to Sanders’s legislation is that the federal government would forfeit the power to end legal weed in states should the “experiments” go awry. Clinton has said she supports a “wait and see” approach, suggesting that a Clinton administration would be prepared to intervene if Seattle and Denver turn into little Gomorrahs. But one would imagine that states would reform their own laws if their cities were being besieged by reefer madness. And on balance, the marijuana policy regime proposed by Sanders is far closer to Clinton’s own stated ideal than the status quo.
Should Clinton decline to support Sanders’s bill while nonetheless expressing support for its basic provisions, she would be upholding one small and unfortunate aspect of the Obama legacy. While the president has said that he supports the “carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana,” he has declined to use his executive authority to reschedule the drug to reflect that position.
By endorsing Sanders’s bill, Clinton could clear up the Democratic party’s dazed confusion on marijuana policy.
*An earlier version of this story suggested that scientists also needed to obtain approval from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). While NIDA manages the University of Mississippi farm contract through which research-grade medical marijuana is dispersed, the institute does not subject research projects approved by other agencies to any additional approval process before supplying them.