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Bernie Sanders signals support for marijuana legalization

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders did not mince words at the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas, where he talked about Wall Street, NSA surveillance and climate change. (Video: Victoria M. Walker/The Washington Post)
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Asked by CNN's Juan Carlos Lopez whether he'd support Nevada's 2016 ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in that state, Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders answered "I suspect I would vote yes" to applause from the crowd.

Sanders' answer is significant because it marks the first time a 2016 candidate has openly declared support for legalizing recreational -- and not just medical -- marijuana. Asked earlier this year on Reddit about his views on marijuana, Sanders replied that he supported marijuana decriminalization as well as medical marijuana. He also hinted that he'd have more to say in coming months on the subject.

His response at tonight's debate may hint at what his future policy proposals may entail. The full question and response is below:

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?
SANDERS: 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. 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.

Hillary Clinton reiterated her previous vow to take a "wait-and-see" approach when it comes to recreational marijuana. Asked if she was ready to take a position on state-level recreational pot at the debate, Clinton responded with an emphatic "No."

She added, "I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today. I do support the use of medical marijuana, and I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we're going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief."

The other candidates on state, Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, were not given an opportunity to respond to any marijuana questions. O'Malley has said he supports loosening federal marijuana laws.

In an email Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that opposes legalization, urged Senator Sanders to reconsider his position. "Just wait until Sen. Sanders finds out that there's a Big Marijuana industry aspiring to be the next Big Pharma and Big Tobacco," he wrote. "I don't think he realizes that there is a huge Wall Street industry supporting legalized marijuana; when he does, he may have second opinions."

Tom Angell, chairman of the pro-legalization group Marijuana Majority, was feeling more upbeat. "This is the first time we've seen a major candidate for president say he'd probably vote for legalizing marijuana if given the chance," Angell wrote in an email. "That says a lot about how far the politics on this issue have shifted in a very short amount of time."

He added, "in 2008 no major candidate even supported decriminalization when asked in a debate."

More than half of Americans say that the use of marijuana should be legal.

Highlights from the debate, where candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders took on gun control, Benghazi and other top issues (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)