In a Virginia town hall broadcast (naturally) to about 300 college campuses Wednesday, Sanders told an audience of more than 1,700 applauding students:
"Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use," he said, according to The Washington Post's John Wagner and Christopher Ingraham. “That’s wrong. That has got to change.”
What Sanders is calling for is not legalization. But the policy implications of removing pot entirely from the government's schedule of controlled substances would be big: States would be allowed to legalize it without interference from Washington, it would help economies involving pot (like banking) grow without fear of prosecution from the federal government, and fewer people would go to jail for possessing marijuana.
We're still quite a ways from that becoming a reality, despite the most recent Gallup polling showing a substantial majority of Americans support legalizing recreational marijuana and a few states moving to do just that in recent years.
But Sanders, in being the first national candidate to call for this change, took us a clear step closer.
There are a few reasons his announcement was a big moment for pot politically. First, the medical community at large would agree with Sanders that pot is not as dangerous as, say, crack cocaine and heroin and the other highly addictive drugs it is currently classified with. Respected organizations like the American Medical Association have also said keeping marijuana on a legally unreachable shelf stymies research for its healing potentials. In that way, Sanders is bringing already-existent medical views of pot to the forefront of a political debate that hasn't yet embraced them.
Second, Sanders is not a fringe candidate — although you could argue some of the democratic socialist's policies aren't exactly mainstream. He regularly draws crowds in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, and is giving Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton a run for her money. And if there's anything this campaign has taught us, it's that Sanders has the ability to draw Clinton to the left politically. That doesn't mean Clinton will take the same stance, but it does mean there could be pressure to move in that direction.
Third, this just feels like something of a turning point in our nation's approach to marijuana. Like it or not, the signs would indicate we're on a national trajectory toward decriminalization, perhaps even legalization. And it's happening remarkably fast, relative to other social issues.
The war on drugs is ending, and a new approach to how we regulate drugs like marijuana has already begun. The Obama administration, under former attorney general Eric Holder, has pushed to ease regulations that put non-violent drug offenders behind bars, and has agreed to look the other way when states legalize pot.
In Congress, there's also a steady — if not slow — push by a growing number of lawmakers to ease federal restrictions for medical and recreational use. Wagner and Ingraham point out that medical marijuana is sold in nearly half the country and one red state, Alaska, has legalized it recreationally.
Most other presidential contenders have been more cautious about recreational marijuana. Clinton has very much taken a wait-and-see approach when it comes to states that have legalized it. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has raised money from the marijuana industry for his presidential campaign, has said the federal government shouldn't interfere with states who want to legalize it. He and and former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley (D) have said they'd support bumping down a notch the government's classification of pot as a drug. Only Sanders has supported taking it off completely. And of course, neither Paul nor O'Malley are drawing the kind of support that Sanders is.
It seems only a matter of time before more politicians join Sanders in taking more definitive policy positions that move along the drug's slow but apparently inevitable march toward acceptance in America. Maybe it's this election, maybe it's the next. But Sanders will likely be remembered as the guy who took us one step closer to our inevitable new relationship with pot.