Bernie Sanders on Drug Policy

Bernie sees the “War on Drugs” as a costly, destructive, and ineffective policy. Current drug laws have not worked. After spending billions of dollars and destroying millions of lives, there has been no real decrease in drug accessibility or use, as evidenced by the opioid epidemic, the rising rates of heroin use, and the scourge of meth. Bernie believes treatment, not punishment, is the answer, and he’s repeatedly introduced legislation to extensively reform the criminal justice system along these lines.

War on Drugs: The fifty year war on drugs is a failed policy that has led to mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders and has unfairly targeted people of color.

Treatment for Drug Offenders: Nonviolent drug offenders should not be incarcerated. Instead, they should have access to affordable treatment to address their drug dependencies.

Legalize Marijuana: Marijuana ought to be legalized.

Addressing the Heroin and Opioid Epidemics : Heroin and opioid abuse is at epidemic levels, and the U.S. is not addressing the crisis with the urgency and seriousness that is required. We must address this crisis by providing resources, proper treatment and healthcare professionals to the communities struggling with this epidemic.

Here’s a link to Bernie’s plan to legalize marijuana and his comprehensive plan, Justice and Safety for All,  to reform the criminal justice system.


War on Drugs

The War on Drugs has failed and Bernie believes we must end this destructive policy. He’s not alone — a 2014 poll shows that the majority of Americans are ready to end the War on Drugs too.


The War on Drugs is ineffective, harmful, and expensive. It has wasted more than just money and manpower — it has destroyed people’s lives through the mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders. 45 percent of all federal inmates are in jail for drug-related offenses. Compare this figure to the number of serious violent felony offenders (homicide, aggravated assault, and kidnapping) which comprise only 3.2 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 at least $100 billion annually and has spent over $1 trillion dollars since 1980 on drug law enforcement alone. Much of the federal funding set aside for treatment is actually funneled into drug courts and the criminal justice system,  which is far less effective than health-based approaches.


How has the war on drugs increased the prison population?

Since 1980, there’s been a 500 percent increase in the U.S. prison population. In 1980, there were 50,000 people in prison for drug-related charges. Compare that to now — 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 12 percent of the U.S. population is black, while 33 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, black Americans are more likely than whites to be arrested; and once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face harsh sentences. And specifically, blacks are disproportionately arrested for drug crimes.


Bernie links the War on Drugs to a high rate of imprisonment as well as a high rate of unemployment. He says time and time again: “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.

What has Bernie done to address this issue?

Bernie cosponsored the Recidivism Reduction and Second Chance Act of 2007, a bill that would have expanded services to offenders and their families for reentry into society.  Bernie supported the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, which would have reduced mandatory sentences for drug offenses and expanded the ability of nonviolent drug offenders to seek reduced sentences.

Treatment for Drug Offenders

Bernie believes we should offer treatment to nonviolent drug offenders instead of continuing our current practice of over-incarceration in the War on Drugs. Treatment has been shown to save on the cost of imprisonment and rehabilitate users back into the workforce. Bernie supports offering this treatment as part of his general plan 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. The annual cost for a federal inmate is $34,700 per year. The federal prison budget for 2018 is estimated to be $7.1 billion. The average cost to house an inmate in the U.S. is $40,000. In California the cost per inmate is $81,000 each year.

Bernie supports alternative sentencing for non-violent drug crimes and continues to object to mandatory minimums for non-violent offenses. In 2000, he voted yes on an appropriations bill that supported alternative sentences in rehabilitation programs. A 2012 National Criminal Justice Reference Service study reported that effective drug treatment programs can help people with addictions and keep them out of prison. Treatment will not only save the cost of imprisonment, but will also rehabilitate users back into the workforce. 

Drug courts are a solution, but not the solution to keep people out of jail.  They do save money and help some drug offenders when they work, but they are not as effective as hoped. Some defendants who agree to undergo treatment through drug court will fail because they lack housing, food, and transportation, or because quality treatment for their needs may be scarce, underfunded, and understaffed. There aren’t enough treatment options, insurance coverage is often inadequate, there aren’t enough beds, and courts sometimes mandate inappropriate treatment, or treatment for people who don’t need it. 

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

A lot of people can’t access treatment because of the costs. Bernie called on the U.S. government to lower the price on naloxone, 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.

Also, there aren’t enough treatment center or substance abuse counselors to provide treatment to the people who need it, when they need it. Bernie 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.  And sadly, this can have deadly consequences.

Bernie posted a powerful video of a Mom whose son died because he couldn’t get the rehab services he needed to fight his addiction. Bernie said, “No one in the richest country in the history of the world should die because they can’t afford health care.”

Learn more about this on the Healthcare page.

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 Reform page.

Legalize Marijuana

Bernie is calling for the legalization of marijuana. He recognizes that 7 in 10 Americans support the legalization of marijuana. The criminalization of marijuana as a dangerous drug makes no sense and has caused great harm to drug addicts while massively increasing the prison population.

Bernie is a cosponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act of 2019 , which would legalize marijuana by removing it from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In 2015, NORML endorsed Bernie for President, for his 2018 Senate reelection campaign, and has given him  an “A+” grade based on his legislative track record.

In 2015, Bernie introduced legislation to end the prohibition of cannabis. He recently cosponsored the 2019 Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which would federally decriminalize cannabis. 

Does Bernie really want to erase marijuana convictions?

Yes, he does. 

He has said, “The fact that marijuana is classified next to cocaine or heroin under federal law is absolutely ridiculous. We need to legalize marijuana in this country and furthermore, expunge any criminal records pertaining to the use of marijuana.” This could affect 1 million Californians alone.

Bernie strongly supports the expungement of marijuana convictions, especially for drug offenders who did not commit any other crime, or if the drug offense was nonviolent. Not only does he believe in total expungement of marijuana possession convictions, but he also believes in the expansion of education to bring awareness about marijuana, performance-enhancing stimulants, and other forms of drugs. Bernie advocates for expanding drug treatment clinics at hospitals to treat the most vulnerable addicts and converting to a Medicare-for-All single-payer healthcare program.

Finally, Bernie believes states should be responsible for taxing and regulating marijuana the same way they do for the sale of alcohol and tobacco.

Does Bernie support ‘Ban the Box’ too?

Bernie wants to ‘ban the box’ so employers can’t ask people about convictions when they apply for a job. He believes this will “restore hope and opportunity to those with criminal records who face substantial obstacles in their quest to be productive members of their communities.”

This one change could help the more that 14 million ex-convicts who currently must overcome the hurdle of having a criminal record to even get even a callback for a job interview. 

How has Bernie supported medical marijuana?

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 classification and has said so repeatedly.  He believes that tobacco is more harmful to human health.

Since 2001, Bernie has supported the use of medical marijuana. He cosponsored the States’ Rights to Medical Marijuana Act in 2001, which would have turned marijuana into a Schedule II substance that has a recognized medical use.

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

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.

Ending the federal prohibition on marijuana would allow banks in states that opt to legalize to work with businesses without risk of federal prosecution.

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 cosponsored the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act of 2015 to immediately remedy this situation by ensuring access to banking services for these legitimate businesses.

Bernie spoke directly on this issue in 2015 saying:

“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.”

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.”

Heroin and Opioid Crisis

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?

The current Heroin epidemic “started” around 2002 and continues to this day, but it is now discussed as part of the overall opioid crisis. Time Magazine reported that between 2002 and 2013, heroin use increased by 63 percent. During that time, overdoses increased by 286% and 517,000 people reported a heroin dependency.

What is the opioid crisis?

Opioid pain relievers were marketed by pharmaceutical companies in the 1990s as non-addictive. During this time, healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates. It soon became clear that these medications are highly addictive. Both prescription and non-prescription opioids are being so widely misused that in 2017, the federal government declared a public health emergency and announced a 5-Point Strategy To Combat the Opioid Crisis. Current discussion about the opioid crisis includes not just prescription opioids, but also illegal opioids like heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

I’ve been hearing about fentanyl in the news. It that part of this crisis?

Yes. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) is being used by people addicted to opioids because it is cheap to produce and becoming more available than heroin. The war of drugs made other opioids less available but failed to address the addiction problem. Without treatment, people do not suddenly stop using opioids. Instead, they turn to even more unsafe synthetic alternatives with tragic consequences. The sharpest rise in drug-related deaths occurred in 2016 with over 20,000 deaths from fentanyl.


Attempts to address the crisis have been completely counterproductive.  Now, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are being used in combination with other opioids. One of the problems is that although fentanyl is more potent, it doesn’t last as long, and so it must be consumed more frequently to avoid withdrawal symptoms.  Each time opioids are used, the risk of overdose is increased. 

How serious is the opioid crisis?

Very. The numbers are alarming. From 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people died from a drug overdose. 68 percent of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid. In 2017, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids was 6 times higher than in 1999. On average, 130 Americans die every day from opioid overdose.


Where is this happening in the United States?

Tragically, but not surprisingly, the opioid crisis is the worst in areas of the country that are struggling economically.  Entire communities are being destroyed by this epidemic. West Virginia and Appalachia are suffering the worst effects as this map illustrates.


What is Bernie doing about this crisis?

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

In 2016, Bernie visited McDowell County, West Virginia, which is in one of the poorest, hardest hit areas affected by the opioid crisis. McDowell has the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in West Virginia

Bernie understands the gut wrenching desperation and hopelessness that is crushing the people there

Here’s video of the Bernie’s Poverty in America forum In McDowell County:


In 2018, Bernie sponsored the Opioid Crisis Accountability Act, which aims to establish criminal penalties for drug companies who negligently omit information about the risk of addition in advertising and limits the quantity of opioids that may delivered to each state. He voted for the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, which would create treatment and recovery programs and fund laboratories to detect imported synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl.

Bernie sponsored the Community Health Centers and Primary Care Workforce Expansion Act of 2019, which would expand and modernize community health centers in both rural and urban areas to deal with the opioid epidemic. Bernie also voted unanimously with the Senate in support of the INTERDICT Act of 2017, which increased the number chemical screening devices available to the U.S Customs and Border Protection Agency to detect fentanyl and other opioids.

Additionally, Bernie cosponsored the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) of 2016 which focuses on increasing the availability of naloxone, improved prescription drug monitoring programs to detect opioids, and calls for addiction treatment rather than punishment in prison populations. 

Bernie cosponsored the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency (CARE) Act of 2019, which provides $6.7 billion for public health departments and communities impacted by the opioid epidemic.

What are some things that might help?

Medicare for All and Expanding Medicaid

People need insurance to treat injuries so they don’t have to self medicate.

One of the things that leads to opioid use is pain.  20 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. Doctors over prescribe painkillers in part because physical therapy and alternative pain treatment, especially for back pain, are more expensive and require adequate insurance coverage that a lot of people don’t have. Many people who are underinsured or uninsured cannot access the healthcare they need to treat injuries and pain and they often cannot take time off from work. As a result, they self medicate.  This leads to addiction and the underlying physical pain that led to opioid use in the first place is never addressed. 

Healthcare must be expanded to meet the needs of this crisis

There are not enough treatment facilities in the affected areas to address this crisis. Arresting people and reducing the accessibility of opioids is not an adequate response to this addiction epidemic. People need treatment. We need to train more counselors. We need to build more facilities. The stark reality is that this is a matter of life and death.  The longer we wait to provide health care coverage to everyone who needs it, the more people will die. 

Workers should be given sick days

Many people have no sick days and cannot afford to take time off from work to recover from an injury. Because they cannot allow their bodies to heal and must return to work, they self medicate to be able to function well enough to do their job. This leads to addiction.

We need Needle Exchange and Harm Reduction programs

Along with the overdoses and deaths, injection drug use increases the risk of contracting Hepatitis C as well as the spread of HIV and other diseases with the use of shared needles. Safe disposal of used syringes is essential to protect neighborhoods and sanitation workers. Some overdoses can be prevented by making naloxone more readily available. 

Safe injection sites and needle exchange sites can be an important way to alleviate some of the suffering, reduce public health risks, and provide services to addicts who desperately need them.