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Why Bernie Sanders’ marijuana proposal would be a big deal

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) laughs during a 2011 visit to Afghanistan. (S.K. Vemmer/Department of State. Used under a Creative Commons license)

Bernie Sanders has been hinting for months now that he'll have more to say on marijuana in the 2016 election. Tonight, it looks like he'll finally say it.

Sanders will call for marijuana to be removed from the Drug Enforcement Administration's schedule of controlled substances. Doing so would be a big deal for marijuana policy in this country. While it wouldn't legalize marijuana at the federal level per se, it would allow states to pursue their own marijuana policies free of most federal interference. The DEA classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug because it says that the drug has no medically accepted use and high potential for abuse. It's regulated more tightly than other drugs that are far more deadly and less medically useful, like cocaine, opium and methamphetamines.

"The time is long overdue for us to take marijuana off the federal government’s list of outlawed drugs," he said in prepared remarks given to the Post by his campaign. "In my view, states should have the right to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws now govern sales of alcohol and tobacco."

Here are seven things that would change if marijuana were removed from the DEA's schedule:

1. The DEA would stop raiding marijuana businesses and customers.

Already, they're not supposed to be doing this when it comes to medical marijuana providers. Measures attached to last year's "cromnibus" spending bill were meant to prevent the Department of Justice from pursuing legal actions against medical marijuana businesses in compliance with applicable state laws. But the department has effectively ignored those guidelines this year, prompting a stern rebuke from a federal judge earlier this month.

Recreational marijuana businesses don't have the congressional protections afforded to medical providers. The Department of Justice has advised federal prosecutors to use discretion when pursuing marijuana cases, and to focus primarily on cases where marijuana is being distributed to minors, trafficked to states where it isn't legal, or other instances in clear violation of the law.

But this memo isn't legally binding. Essentially, federal authorities have offered a handshake agreement that they won't bother marijuana businesses in compliance with state laws. But under a new president or a new attorney general, that could change. Removing marijuana from the schedule of controlled substances would eliminate this grey area entirely.

2. Marijuana businesses could use the bank.

Since pot is illegal at the federal level, most banks -- even ones in states where marijuana is legal -- are wary about doing business with marijuana customers. Colorado set up a credit union for marijuana businesses last year in order to address this concern, but the Federal Reserve recently blocked the move by saying it wouldn't accept any money from marijuana businesses. This would prevent the credit union from accessing the electronic networks that would allow it to do commerce with other parts of the national banking system.

This move appears to contradict guidance given out by the Treasury Department last year that tried to "enhance the availability of financial services for, and the financial transparency of, marijuana-related businesses." Instances like this, where different parts of the federal government issue contradictory rulings on the same issue, are one of the reasons why running a marijuana businesses can be so costly -- and so risky -- even in places where state law allows it.

Currently, most marijuana businesses are cash-only.

3. They could apply for tax breaks too.

An obscure provision in the federal tax code prevents businesses "trafficking" in controlled substances from taking advantage of tax breaks and exemptions available to other businesses. In legal marijuana states, it essentially puts the marijuana industry in a Catch-22: marijuana businesses have to file federal tax returns, but they can't deduct the types of expenses that businesses usually deduct. In some cases, marijuana businesses are paying effective tax rates of 80 or 90 percent.

4. Research into medical uses of marijuana could proceed unimpeded

Currently, marijuana researchers face a tangle of red tape when it comes to conducting studies on the medical uses of the plant. This has prompted everyone from the Brookings Institution to the American Medical Association to call on the government to make it easier to work with the drug. But the Drug Enforcement Administration has rejected numerous attempts to relax marijuana rules over the decades, sometimes overriding the recommendations of federal judges.

If marijuana were removed from the schedule, much of this red tape would be eliminated.

5. The DEA would end its "marijuana eradication program"

For decades, the Drug Enforcement Administration has been pursuing a marijuana eradication program "to halt the spread of cannabis cultivation in the United States." The program is costly -- it costs $60 to pull up a single pot plant in Oregon, where marijuana is legal -- and it's pulling up less weed as more growers shift to indoor grow methods.

It has also proven to be incredibly ineffective. In 1977, two years before the program started, 24 percent of Americans said they had ever tried marijuana, according to Gallup. By 2015, that number was up to 44 percent.

6. Marijuana would regain the status it was always supposed to have

Marijuana was originally placed on Schedule 1 as a temporary measure in 1970 while a government-convened panel of experts figured out how to handle it from a legal standpoint. Two years later, the panel recommended complete decriminalization of small amounts of the drug: "the Commission recommends ... [that the] possession of marijuana for personal use no longer be an offense, [and that the] casual distribution of small amounts of marijuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration, no longer be an offense."

But President Richard Nixon ignored his own commission's findings and kept marijuana on Schedule 1, saying "we need, and I use the word 'all out war,' on all fronts" when it came to weed.

7. Most voters -- who say states should chart their own course on weed -- would get what they want

Even Republican voters, who are generally more skeptical of marijuana legalization, say that states should be able to carry out their own marijuana laws without federal interference. The National Conference of State Legislatures has said the same thing. Removing marijuana from the schedule of controlled substances would simply add a federal imprimatur to a way of thinking held by a majority of Americans.