Last night, during the first Democratic debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) became the first major presidential candidate to say that he would support legalizing marijuana if given the chance. Asked whether he would support an upcoming ballot measure on legalization in Nevada, Sanders said:
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 and we've got a lot of work to do in that area.
Hillary Clinton was more cautious, saying she was not ready to take a position on broad legalization even though she supports medical marijuana. She did speak out against mass incarceration and said that we too many people behind bars for drug offenses.
I have worked at the Drug Policy Alliance for sixteen years and this is the first presidential debate I have ever seen where candidates said good things about marijuana reform, spoke out against mass incarceration, called for various criminal justice reforms, and most importantly, said nothing too stupid!
In years past, candidates either totally ignored the failed war on drugs and the harms of marijuana prohibition -- or more typically, said harmful, stupid stuff about their "youthful indiscretions," their concern about "sending the wrong message," and their plans to amp up law enforcement.
All of the candidates embraced criminal justice reform and ending the catastrophic policies that have given the U.S. the shameful distinction as the world's leading jailer. Webb, the former Senator from Virginia who made criminal justice reform a focal point during his time in office, bragged about his work helping to put mass incarceration on the political map.
It's also interesting that Anderson Cooper hyped up the marijuana legalization question before going to a commercial break. CNN knows it keeps viewers watching.
The disastrous drug war has persisted for almost 45 years and has ruined millions of lives -- through mass incarceration, hundreds of thousands of preventable overdose deaths and HIV infections, not to mention prohibition-related crime, corruption, and violence.
It's gratifying to see candidates recognizing that the American people are demanding change, and that they should support it -- or at least get out of the way -- as our country looks for an exit strategy from this unwinnable war.
Tony Newman is the media director at Drug Policy Action.