Bernie Sanders on Drug Policy

Bernie Sanders believes the United States’ current “war on drugs” is a failed policy. He recognizes that the war on drugs has not quelled the drug-use epidemics facing the nation. Instead, he advocates treatment for drug addiction, not punishment – and he’s repeatedly introduced legislation to extensively reform the criminal justice system along these lines. He supports medical marijuana and the decriminalization of recreational marijuana, and has said that he supports the right of states to opt for full legalization.

Current State of the War on Drugs

Bernie believes that the war on drugs is ineffective and harmful, and has claimed from the country more than just money and manpower: it has destroyed people’s lives through mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders. As of June 2015, 48 percent of all federal inmates are in jail for drug-related offenses. Compare this figure to the fact that homicide, aggravated assault, and kidnapping offenders comprise only 2.9 percent of the federal prison population.

Bernie says, “What I can tell you is this: We have far, far, far too many people in jail for nonviolent crimes, and I think in many ways, the war against drugs has not been successful.”

How much has the war on drugs cost us?

The U.S. spends $51 billion annually and over $1 trillion dollars since 1980, according to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

Of this amount, over half is allocated to reducing the supply of drugs. Less than 45 percent of the budget is devoted demand reduction, such as treatment and education. According to the same DPA report, “Much [of the] federal funding for treatment is, in fact, funneled into the criminal justice system which is far less effective than health-based approaches.” Instead of receiving treatment, people are being funneled into a drug court.

But this amount doesn’t include the loss of productivity of millions of people?

Bernie links the war on drugs to a high rate of imprisonment as well as a high rate of unemployment:

“If you do not believe that there is a correlation between high youth unemployment and the fact that this country has more people in jail than any other country on Earth, you would be wrong. Now, how does it happen that in this great nation, we have more people in jail than the communist authoritarian country of China, which has over three times our population? And in my view — and I feel this very, very strongly — instead of locking up our young people, maybe it’s time we found jobs for them and education for them.”

Incarcerated nonviolent offenders can’t contribute to the economy. They also have trouble finding work once they are released from prison, adding to their chances of recidivism.

How has the war on drugs increased the prison population?

According to Pew research, since 1970, there’s been a 700 percent increase in the U.S. prison population. In 1980, there were 50,000 people in prison for drug-related charges.

Compare that to today — 1.5 million people are arrested each year for drug-related offenses and over 500,000 are behind bars. According to The Economist, “Tougher drug laws are the main reason why one in five black American men spend some time behind bars.”

Minorities are disproportionately represented in the prison system, and this is a direct result of the War on Drugs.

Approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population is black, while 40 percent of the male prison population is black. Bernie often cites the fact that a black male baby born today has a one-in-three chance of being incarcerated during his lifetime.

According to the Sentencing Project, Blacks make up 12 percent of the nation’s drug users, yet represent 34 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 45 percent of those in state prison for such offense as of 2005.

How has Bernie tried to address this issue?

In 2007, Bernie co-sponsored a bill to reduce recidivism, allowing incarcerated offenders access to pharmacological drug treatment. Bernie later supported The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, which unfortunately died in the Senate. Had it passed, it would have adjusted federal mandatory sentencing guidelines for a variety of crimes, reduced the mandatory sentences of drug offenses, expanded the ability of nonviolent drug offenders to reduce sentences, and enabled federal prisoners to seek retroactive sentence adjustment under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

What else is Bernie doing to reform our criminal justice system?

A lot. He believes the criminal justice system serves to perpetuate systemic inequities in American society. You can watch him talk about some of those issues here:

Bernie’s been consistent with his views about drug policy. You can watch him talk about this in 1991 and 1994 as well. Learn more about his record and proposed policies with regards to criminal justice.

Treatment for Drug Offenders

Bernie believes we should offer treatment to nonviolent drug offenders instead of continuing our current practice of over-incarceration under the war on drugs. Treatment has been shown to save the cost of imprisonment and rehabilitate users back into the workforce. Bernie supports offering this treatment as part of his general move to increase access to health care.

What’s the alternative to imprisoning drug offenders?

According to the Justice Policy Institute, treatment is better than imprisonment at reducing recidivism — plus, it’s cheaper. Treatment costs approximately $20,000 less than what we pay to incarcerate one person for a year.

Bernie believes we do not have the infrastructure in place to provide treatment to the people who need it, when they need it. He’s stated:

“We are unprepared for the epidemic in terms of our mental health capacity to treat people who need treatment. And one of the problems in Vermont is you have waiting lists of people who want to break the habit, want to break their addiction, and we can’t treat them when they want to do it.”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), only 11 percent of the 22.7 million Americans who needed drug or alcohol treatment in 2013 had access to it.

Why don’t people who need drug treatment have access to it?

Sadly, a lot of it is due to costs. Bernie called on the U.S. government to lower prices on a life-saving drug used for treating heroin overdoses — the drug’s price has risen over 50 percent and he’s pushed for the reduction of the cost of medication, including what is covered through Medicaid, as a general need for universal health care.

Learn more about Bernie’s work around Healthcare.

Medical Use of Marijuana

Bernie supports the medical use of marijuana and the rights of states to determine its legality.

How has he supported medical marijuana?

Bernie openly supports the use of medical marijuana. He co-sponsored the States’ Rights to Medical Marijuana Act in 2001, which, if enacted, would have turned marijuana into a Schedule II substance. This means that it’s recognized as having an accepted medical use in treatment. On a federal level, marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I substance, defined as, “a drug with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” According to the DEA website, Schedule I drugs are “the most dangerous drugs of all.” Bernie disagrees with this assessment, instead saying that he believes that tobacco is more harmful to human health.

Recreational Use of Marijuana

Bernie has gone on the record saying that if he were a resident of a state voting on legalization of marijuana, he would vote yes. With respect to national legalization, he supports ending the federal prohibition on marijuana. This would allow banks in states that opt to legalize to work with businesses without risk of federal prosecution.

What’s his view on legalizing recreational marijuana use?

In early 2015, Bernie said the following:

“Let me just say this — the state of Vermont voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and I support that. I have supported the use of medical marijuana. And when I was mayor of Burlington, in a city with a large population, I can tell you very few people were arrested for smoking marijuana. Our police had more important things to do… Colorado has led the effort toward legalizing marijuana and I’m going to watch very closely to see the pluses and minuses of what they have done. I will have more to say about this issue within the coming months.”

Here’s a video of Bernie discussing his views on marijuana use and laws back in June, 2015:

What has Bernie said more recently about legalization?

In the first Democratic debate, when asked whether he would vote for legalization if he were a resident of Nevada where it will be up for vote, Bernie responded, “I suspect I would vote yes. And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses.”

Watch Bernie’s full response:

So he supports a state’s right to legalize, but what about federal laws?

Bernie has come out in favor of ending the federal prohibition on marijuana. On October 28, 2015, Bernie said:

“In my view, states should have the right to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws now govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco. And among other things, that means that recognized businesses in states that have legalized marijuana should be fully able to use the banking system without fear of federal prosecution.”

Here is the full excerpt:

Why can’t businesses use banks in states that have legalized?

As Bernie alludes to in the above clip, banks have been hesitant to work with marijuana-related businesses for fear of being implicated as money-launderers. Since marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, banks put themselves and their customers at risk by associating with marijuana-related businesses – even if those businesses are legal under state law. This remains the case today despite modest efforts by the Obama administration to give banks the green light to work with these businesses.

Has Bernie tried to do anything about this?

Besides supporting the end of the federal prohibition on marijuana as part of his campaign platform, Bernie is co-sponsoring the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act of 2015 to immediately remedy this situation by ensuring access to banking services for these legitimate businesses.

Has Bernie ever inhaled?

Bernie has inhaled! But, he wasn’t a fan, personally:

“Because I coughed a lot, I don’t know. I smoked marijuana twice, didn’t quite work for me… It’s not my thing, but it is the thing of a whole lot of people.”

Addressing the Heroin Epidemic

Bernie recognizes that heroin use is startlingly high and supports preventative measures to increase education and rehabilitation in order to combat this epidemic.

What is the heroin epidemic?

Time magazine reports that between 2002 and 2013, heroin use increased by 63 percent and overdoses increased dramatically. Heroin-related deaths quadrupled during that period, and in 2013, about 517,000 people reported a heroin dependency.

Where does Bernie stand on the state of heroin use in the country right now?

Bernie believes heroin use is at epidemic levels, and that our country lacks the infrastructure to combat this issue. He thinks treatment is necessary, because, as he as put it, “Once you’re into heroin, it’s either jail or death.”