A Gallup Poll taken last week found that nearly 60% of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana (also referred to as “pot” or “weed”), consistent with previous findings over the past couple of years. No less surprising is that Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Democratic Nominee for president, became the first – and so far – only major-party candidate to say he now supports making pot legal. When asked by CNN debate moderator Juan Carlos Lopez, “Senator Sanders, right here in Nevada, there will be a measure to legalize recreational marijuana on the 2016 ballot. You’ve said you smoked marijuana twice; it didn’t quite work for you. If you were a Nevada resident, how would you vote?” Senator Sanders responded “I suspect I would vote yes” – to much applause. Though some states have legalized both medicinal and recreational use of pot, the sale of pot is still a violation of federal law.
The most libertarian candidate for president, Rand Paul (R-KY), has declined to take a position, only saying “that the federal government should not try to force pot prohibition on the states.” Sanders has been a long-time sponsor of the use of medical marijuana. In fact, he co-sponsored House Resolution HR2592, States’ Rights to Medical Marijuana dating back more than 14 years, but it was not until the Democratic debate on October 13 that he came out in favor of the legalization of pot. The true evil is the injustice in how our criminal justice system disproportionately mistreats nonviolent drug offenses when compared with white-collar criminals. Topping the list is bankers committing corporate malfeasance, whose irresponsible speculation was largely responsible for sending our economy into its worst recession in history in 2008 – none of whom, as of to date, have so much as received a slap on the wrist. As Senator Sanders said: “And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana. I think we have to think through this war on drugs…which has done an enormous amount of damage. We need to rethink our criminal justice system, we we’ve got a lot of work to do in that area.”
Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, leading to mass incarceration – giving rise to a most sinister for-profit prison industry and the commodification of prisons. This rise of for-profit prisons led to indiscriminately imprisoning non-violent offenders, mostly people of color and other minorities, which in some states received life sentences for the possession of pot – making billions for an immoral industry. There are nearly 1.6 million people in federal and state prisons 50% of whom are sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses, with half of all prisoners either Black or Hispanic. There are nearly 150,000 people held in private prisons not counting the fact that the Marshal Service and Customs Enforcement house the majority of its detainees in private prisons.
President Obama has long talked about this issue and recently started commuting the sentences of non-violent offenders and stated he plans the use of clemency to free many more nonviolent drug offenders. However, Sanders recognizes the real protagonist is a for-profit prison industry, which can only survive by being fed by an unfair justice system – disproportionately and indiscriminately incarcerating human beings. In September, Sanders introduced legislation to ban private prisons, saying “We cannot fix our criminal justice system if corporations are allowed to profit from mass incarceration…Keeping human beings in jail for long periods of time must no longer be an acceptable business model in America. We have got to end the private prison racket in America. Our focus should be on treating people with dignity and ensuring they have the resources they need to get back on their feet when they get out.”
Sanders has offered unwavering support of civil and human rights dating back more than 50 years to his 1963 trip to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at the March on Washington, as well as being arrested that same year during a demonstration in Chicago protesting the city’s segregated schools. He recognizes the issue is not whether pot should be banned, but that pot is symbolic of a broken and corrupt system of civil rights and human rights abuses overwhelmingly incarcerating people of color and minorities for nonviolent drug offenses. Pot is the excuse to incarcerate, to feed a malicious parasitic industry – and “in a society dedicated to liberty and justice, for-profit prisons offend our bedrock principles. Depriving someone of their freedom is the most severe punishment the federal government can levy – the sole incentive must be justice, never profit.”
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.