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Promises, Promises: Bernie, Biden, and the Cannabis Question


With the Democratic primaries having weeded out (no pun intended) most of the Democratic leadership hopefuls, we now know who the two main contenders are.

Where do Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders stand on marijuana legalization? Predictably, their positions are pretty distinct, but with some important crossover.

What is Joe Biden’s Marijuana Policy?

Joe Biden, not surprisingly, takes the more conservative approach of the two. His campaign promise is to decriminalize marijuana, yet not necessarily legalize it – or at least not until we have more scientific research on possible side effects of the substance.

Scientific research can take years to complete, so that caveat in itself could push marijuana legalization into the unforeseeable future, ostensibly letting Biden off the hook for taking action.

In addition to decriminalization, Biden’s policy would:

  • Reschedule marijuana as a Schedule II drug (which would facilitate scientific research)
  • Expunge the criminal record of anyone with past convictions related to marijuana
  • Promote scientific research into marijuana’s benefits and side effects

There’s been some waffling on Biden’s part, in recent days, about whether he may be moving towards legalization rather than just decriminalization as a policy. (This audio, captured by Marijuana Policy Project’s Don Murphy, is a good example of that.)  However, his campaign has since clarified that decriminalization would be the first step in a Biden administration.

Bernie Sanders Makes Some Big Promises

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, who generally wants to go big or go home, has committed to full marijuana legalization in the first days of his administration. And, rather than waiting for the legislative process to catch up, Sanders has promised to use the president’s executive authority “to make marijuana legal in every state in this country.”

Like Biden, Sanders has also pledged to vacate and expunge all past marijuana-related convictions. And he has committed to ensuring that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.

If Biden’s policies focus on harm reduction (through decriminalization) and exploration (through scientific research), Sanders’ plan is to entirely reinvent the narrative of cannabis in America.

His plan is comprehensive and includes elements that are both extremely attractive to the cannabis industry (ahem, legalization) and potentially controversial – like granting the federal government regulatory authority over the industry.

Policy into Practice: It’s Complicated

So, what would be the upshot for the cannabis industry in a Biden or Sanders administration?

Clearly, the best-case scenario from the cannabis industry’s perspective is full legalization at the federal level. This would make it immensely easier to operate and free up banks to invest in the industry.

But is Sander’s plan of using executive privilege to force legalization as straight forward as it seems?

According to many experts, including Brookings Institute scholar, John Hudack, executive action of this kind would not be simple at all – and may actually force a lengthy and complicated review of the regulatory process.

And an executive order can’t force states to legalize marijuana if they want to keep it illegal. It’s unclear how Sanders would be able “to make marijuana legal in every state.”

There’s been much ink spilled on the subject of the best way to legalize marijuana, and none of the options are uncomplicated. In fact, with two-thirds of Americans supporting marijuana legalization, pushing Congress to pass a new law may be the more plausible scenario. That’s if Sanders had the political capital (or the bargaining skills) to make it happen.

An Easy Choice for the Cannabis Industry?

The fact that Sanders’ plan isn’t as simple as it seems doesn’t mean that Biden’s plans would be uncomplicated to put into practice, though they are less ambitious.

Even rescheduling marijuana to make it more accessible for scientific research would take time and political maneuvering, and it’s not clear that this would be a priority in a Biden administration.

And his promise (and Sanders’) to expunge the criminal records of anyone convicted of marijuana-related crimes would surely have to be limited to federal crimes. Offenders against anti-marijuana legislation at the state level would still be caught in the system.

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