Philly420: Senate should consider Sanders' pot bill

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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greets supporters after a campaign rally at the South Carolina Democratic Party headquarters in Columbia, South Carolina, on Nov. 21, 2015.

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spurred a new wave of federal marijuana reform last month when he introduced a bill that would definitively end national prohibition.

The legislation, S2237, seeks to de-schedule marijuana, removing it completely from the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Elegantly simple compared to voluminous other bills in Congress, S2237 carefully untangles cannabis from the entrenchments of an antiquated and ineffective policy. Read the text here.

The concept is far from new. Former Pa. Gov. Raymond P. Shafer proposed the same solution in 1972.

When the CSA was created in 1970 drugs were given "schedules" under the act. Drugs deemed to be without any medical value and with a high potential for addiction, like heroin, were placed in the most restricted category: Schedule I. 

Other drugs were tightly regulated, but not outright prohibited, and put into Schedule II, like cocaine and opiates.

After Congress passed the CSA there was some debate as to where marijuana belonged within the new scheme. It was arbitrarily put into Schedule I.

Shafer was appointed by President Nixon and he formed a commission of legislators and experts to study the issue of cannabis specifically. Shafer was himself a staunch Republican and also a constitutional scholar.

After 14 months Shafer and his fellow commissioners convened to write their prophetic report Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding. 

Their conclusion was that marijuana possession be a non-criminal offense and that cannabis did not belong in any schedule under the CSA.

Personal liberty itself was at issue to Shafer, who wrote in the report: 

A constant tension exists in our society between individual liberties and the need for reasonable societal restraints. It is easy to go too far in either direction, and this tendency is particularly evident where drugs are concerned.

Nixon's personal choice to ignore his own blue-ribbon commission's recommendations resulted in the current morass of state versus federal marijuana laws. 

Sander's bill brings the action full circle. It could finally correct a decades-old wrong that has seen tens of millions of Americans arrested, jailed and made to endure discrimination. 

The Brookings Institute, a public policy think tank, had a rundown of the possible impact of S2237.

For all the talk about Bernie Sanders being a passionate socialist (some of that rhetoric coming from the candidate himself), his proposal is very small-government conservative. This congressional action would not lead to huge federally-owned marijuana grows and national marijuana dispensaries. The amendment to the Controlled Substances Act would simply reduce the federal role in the regulation and criminalization of marijuana, and leave greater discretion to states.

States would indeed have free reign to create local, non-criminal marijuana policies. For states with existing medical and personal use cannabis industries the move would also lift restrictions on banking, finance, scientific research and even tax filings. The shift would likely have a more immediate impact on possession laws which would come more in line with what Philly already has in place with decrim. Another added benefit would be the final hurdles removed for normalized industrial hemp farming across the country. 

Pennsylvania has also languished for years trying to pass a very limited medical cannabis products bill. There are no real prospects for full legalization in the Keystone State. If passed by Congress S2237 could seriously end the local logjam.

Yet S2237 does not have any additional co-sponsors since it was filed on November 4. 

This could have something to do with pure politics and Sander's bid for the presidency.

In columns earlier this year I said there was no candidate from either party, with a real plan to deal with marijuana prohibition. I even called out Sanders to specifically take a stand.  

Thankfully he did. In the best way possible. If Bernie Sanders does become president then this will likely be an issue at the forefront of his early administration. Justin Trudeau was recently elected as Prime Minister of Canada with a pledge to legalize cannabis across his nation. Within weeks of taking office Trudeau is already working on making good on that promise. 

Even if Sanders does not win his campaign for the Oval Office, as a Senator, he could keep forwarding this bill. 

The United States is a disturbing patchwork of injustice when it comes to marijuana laws. Citizens of four states and Washington D.C. enjoy the freedom of choice to consume something safer than alcohol to relax. Businesses happily grow and sell weed. Ten states operate robust medical marijuana programs with fourteen more with some type of compassionate use law on the books. Seventeen states, including Delaware and Maryland, along with dozens of municipalities like Philadelphia, have decriminalized marijuana possession. Yet there are prisoners languishing around the country who have endured the worst of these policies. Bernard Noble is serving 13 years in Louisiana state prison for selling just a few grams of pot. 

It is time the members of the Senate who are most evolved on marijuana policy like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Rand Paul to put politics aside, do what is right, and join on to S2237. But not just them. Every senator should seriously consider the bill. 

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and on the board of PhillyNorml. Contact him at chris@freedomisgreen.com.