Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday — at 4:20 pm Eastern Time — released a plan to legalize marijuana.
The proposal is among the most ambitious from one of the Democratic presidential candidates. It would move to legalize marijuana within 100 days through executive action. But it would also address the potential downsides and criticisms of how several states have legalized marijuana so far — by trying to limit the size and scope of the marijuana industry and taking several steps to ensure that communities of color benefit from legalization while potential bad actors, such as tobacco companies, do not.
First, Sanders would sign an executive order directing the attorney general to declassify marijuana as a controlled substance — removing it from the drug scheduling system and effectively legalizing weed at the federal level. (For more on how this could work, read Gabrielle Gurley’s piece at the American Prospect.)
Sanders would then push Congress to pass a bill to “ensure permanent legalization of marijuana.” After it’s legalized at the federal level, states would also still need to legalize within their own borders.
Although 11 states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana, the drug remains illegal at the federal level, which imposes all sorts of barriers on state-legal marijuana businesses. For example, they must function as cash-only enterprises since many banks are nervous about dealing with businesses that are essentially breaking federal law. The businesses also can’t file for several deductions, and, as a result, their effective income tax rates can soar to as high as 90 percent or more. Marijuana’s classification in the drug scheduling system is also a basis for other restrictions on it, although federal penalties for marijuana are typically more lenient than they are for other drugs.