Sanders vs. Warren on Cannabis

As with many things, their goals are similar; their approaches are starkly different.

When Donald Trump fired his prohibitionist attorney general Jeff Sessions in 2018, many cannabis advocates expressed glee. Some even praised the unprecedentedly corrupt, criminal lunatic in the White House, as if, in canning Sessions, Trump was looking out for the best interests of America’s pot enthusiasts.

Such is what happens when you decide to be a one-issue voter. Nearly every candidate, even Trump, will have an opinion that you agree with. If that opinion happens jibe with your own on the issue that’s most important to you, you might (thoughtlessly) vote for that candidate regardless of the horrors he or she might inflict on your fellow citizens, the rule of law, democratic institutions, or the republic itself.

That said, cannabis policy, and particularly its continued status as a highly illegal drug at the federal level, is an important issue, even if it doesn’t make the top 20 most important to the country as a whole. And the way a candidate approaches the issue can serve as a guide to his or her overall approach to policy and politics. Joe Biden’s puzzlingly clueless attitude toward pot isn’t limited to cannabis policy. See also: Michael Bloomberg. Both men seem to be stuck in the mid-’80s on a whole host of issues.

That framework applies as well on the progressive side of the issue, where the positions on cannabis taken by both frontrunner Bernie Sanders and his progressive challenger Sen. Elizabeth Warren offer windows into their overall approaches to governance. Both candidates have stepped up their focus on cannabis in recent weeks as the presidential campaign headed toward several states that led the charge toward legalization, including California, Colorado, and Nevada.

Both candidates are for federal legalization, and for mitigating the harms wrought by decades of prohibition, particularly in minority communities. But where Sanders mainly uses the topic as a rhetorical cudgel, Warren, as is her wont, tends to emphasize the details of her plans for cannabis policy, and how she means to get them enacted.

On Monday, Sanders released a TV spot in South Carolina, where a crucial primary will take place on Saturday, promising to fix the criminal justice system. As usual, Sanders is focused here more on encouraging ramparts-mounting than he is on the outlining the details of policy. It’s a pretty effective ad, where actor Danny Glover, a Sanders surrogate, assails the “crooks on Wall Street” as pictures of Wall Street titans Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon float across the screen; the idea being that, while guys like that got away with torching the economy a decade or so ago and are still siphoning vast amounts of wealth, lots of people, particularly black ones, are languishing in prison for far lesser offenses. But the ad mentions cannabis only in passing, as one part of Sanders’ overall pledge to remake the criminal-justice system.

He does have a plan, however: it entails removing cannabis from its Schedule 1 status within his first 100 days of office, by executive order. It also includes using federal taxes on pot to provide $50 billion a year in grants to minority entrepreneurs in the pot business and to communities affected by the War on Drugs. The most Sandersish elements of the plan, however, have to do with industry structure: he would impose an outright ban on tobacco companies involving themselves in the cannabis industry, and would provide incentives (it’s not clear what form they would take) for pot businesses to be “structured like nonprofits”; that is, for them to operate as coops and collectives. He would also impose caps on market share and company size to prevent “consolidation and profiteering.”

Many of those points are far more heavily freighted than the policy statement’s prosaic language lets on, and it’s far from clear how successful Sanders might be in getting some of them through Congress, even if there’s a Democratic majority in both houses.

Just as Sanders was bringing his criminal justice and cannabis message to South Carolina, Warren started pushing her cannabis policy hard on social media, linking to the policy platform on her website. It reveals that she shares many of the same goals: legalization, and efforts to right the wrongs of the War on Drugs and give minority entrepreneurs a leg up. There are some substantive differences, however. For example, where Sanders’ position statement doesn’t mention immigration at all, Warren’s decries Trump’s policy of deporting immigrants who have worked in the legal cannabis industry, and she observes that between 2003 and 2018, about 45,000 people have been deported for cannabis crimes, the overwhelming majority of which involved mere possession. She also emphasizes the health aspects of the cannabis plant, something that Sanders doesn’t even mention. She pledges to enable and finance more research, and to lift the restrictions on Veterans Administration doctors advising on cannabis use, a huge issue among veterans.

But the starkest difference between them is in their approaches. Sanders is all about what he will do, like the caps on market share and barring the tobacco industry, while Warren’s talks about enforcing antitrust laws (which, as far as I know, don’t include telling companies which legal businesses they can and cannot enter). Like Sanders, Warren wants to legalize quickly, but right at the top she says she will “work with Congress to legalize marijuana,” while also doing all she can via executive orders and so forth to smooth the way. Sanders’ statement flat-out declares that “as president Bernie will not wait for Congress to act.” He’ll just legalize by fiat. It’s the only mention of the legislative branch in the entire document.

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