During last night's Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, said he would vote for the marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on Nevada's ballot next year if he lived in that state. It was the first time in recent years that Sanders, who opposed drug prohibition back in the 1970s, endorsed marijuana legalization. Until last night, he had sounded very much like Hillary Clinton on this subject, saying he was interested in seeing what happens in Colorado, Washington, and the other states that have legalized pot. Sanders' return to a position he held decades ago, one that is now supported by most Americans, was reminiscent of Barack Obama's 2012 conversion on the issue of gay marriage, which brought him back to the view he had expressed in 1996 after shifts in public opinion made it politically safe. Sanders' "evolution" took a lot longer.
This nevertheless appears to be the first time a major-party presidential candidate has explicitly come out in favor of legalizing marijuana. Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the most libertarian candidate in the Republican field, has declined to take a position on the merits of legalization, saying only that the federal government should not try to force pot prohibition on the states. "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," says Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell. "That says a lot about how far the politics on this issue have shifted in a very short amount of time. As a point of reference, in 2008 no major candidate even supported decriminalization when asked in a debate, and our movement had to chase them around New Hampshire and repeatedly harass them just to garner pledges to stop federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana patients. Legalization is at the forefront of mainstream American politics, and politicians are starting to treat it as such."
In contrast with Sanders, Clinton last night stuck with her wait-and-see position, saying, "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." She added that she does support medical marijuana, although "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." Clinton also agreed with Sanders (as do about 80 percent of Americans) that people should not go to jail for smoking pot, but here she betrayed a common misunderstanding of marijuana's role in the "mass incarceration" she says must end:
I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana. Therefore, we need more states, cities, and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don't have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.
While marijuana accounts for the lion's share of drug arrests (almost half last year), it accounts for a small minority of prison sentences for drug offenses. That's because the vast majority of pot busts (nearly nine out of 10) involve simple possession, and people arrested for that offense generally do not spend much time in jail, let alone go to prison, which is reserved for offenders serving sentences of more than a year. Something like 44,000 people—typically growers, smugglers, or dealers, rather than consumers—are serving time for marijuana offenses in state and federal prisons (as opposed to local jails). That's about 15 percent of the 300,000 or so imprisoned drug offenders (again, excluding people in local jails), who in turn represent around 19 percent of the 1.6 million state and federal prisoners (16 percent of state prisoners and 50 percent of federal prisoners).
Clinton was therefore clearly mistaken when she said prison sentences for "nonviolent, low-level offenses" are "primarily due to marijuana." Sanders was a bit more careful:
I would vote yes [on marijuana legalization] because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for nonviolent 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.
Unlike Clinton, Sanders did not imply that most of the people in prison for drug offenses are pot smokers who got caught with a little weed. The point is important because prohibitionists seize upon it to argue that critics of the war on drugs don't know what they're talking about; because people who support sentencing reform when they think it's all about pot smokers may change their minds when they find out it mainly affects cocaine, meth, and heroin dealers; and because anyone who is serious about ending mass incarceration has to understand that releasing every marijuana offender would barely make a dent in the problem. In fact, even releasing all drug offenders, who represent about one-fifth of the prison population, would still leave a lot to do.
To be clear, it is beyond absurd that police in this country continue to arrest about 700,000 people a year for growing, selling, or (mainly) possessing something you can openly and legally buy in Denver or Seattle, and 44,000 people in prison for marijuana offenses is 44,000 too many. But refomers who want to reverse overincarceration need to understand the nature of the problem, which is not "primarily due to marijuana."