What Sanders’ cannabis policy means for mass incarceration

Sarah Baldwin, Print Managing Editor

Last month, U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders released his plan to legalize the use of marijuana. The three main points laid out in Sanders’ platform include legalizing marijuana within the first 100 days of his presidency, expunging past convictions and investing in communities that have been affected by the disastrous War on Drugs. Of all the presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders has made clear that he is the most committed to solving the very real crisis of mass incarceration in the United States, and this latest policy proposal is just one of many examples of how he plans to do so.

In his plan, Sanders acknowledges that the criminalization of marijuana has done nothing but negatively impact communities of color while (often white) cannabis “entrepreneurs” have profited from the industry in states where cannabis is legal. Sanders’ goal is to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substance Act and expunge past marijuana-related convictions, ensuring that “victims of the War on Drugs are not passed over by the burgeoning marijuana industry.” Additionally, with the tax revenue that will be earned through the legalization of marijuana, Sanders aims to provide grants for communities most heavily impacted by the War on Drugs and for businesses controlled by those who have been arrested for marijuana-related offenses, as well as to offer resources and training to those with convictions in order to ease their transition into the workforce. Not only does Sanders’ plan help to remove thousands of unnecessary convictions, but it also aims to ensure that those who have been impacted by marijuana convictions will be supported when trying to re-enter and operate within society.

However, the legalization of marijuana is simply one example of Sanders’ commitment to combating systemic racism and mass incarceration in this country. In fact, at the beginning of his presidential campaign, Sanders announced his Justice and Safety for All platform, whose primary goal, according to the Senator’s website, is to “make the deep and structural investments to rebuild the communities that mass incarceration continues to decimate.” Among the most radical ideas laid out in the proposal are the complete ending of private for-profit prisons, ending cash bail and a shift away from an emphasis on policing to an emphasis on communities. Within the proposal, Sanders makes clear that we as a country have focused too long on punishment. In fact, Sanders’ plan makes the bold ambition of cutting the incarcerated population in half by reducing the excessive sentencing that is well-known for disproportionately impacting communities of color.

This is not to claim that Sanders’s plan will completely end mass incarceration, as saying such would certainly be naive. In fact, it is unlikely that any mere policy platform has the power to dismantle a system that has become so deeply embedded within our society. However, in order to even begin taking the steps toward ending mass incarceration, a paradigm shift in how we as a country look at the idea of justice is needed. Sanders has made it clear throughout his campaign – and career – that the United States has long focused too heavily on policing and punishment when we should instead be emphasizing community building and restoration. Ultimately, Sanders is the only presidential candidate who seems able – and willing – to build the mass movement that is necessary to begin to remedy the deep and intense systemic racism that plagues this country, and a Sanders presidency is almost certainly a step in the right direction for those communities that continue to be unjustly penalized.

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