- - Monday, December 7, 2015

For marijuana reform advocates, 2014 and 2015 have been remarkable years. Two more states and the District of Columbia joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational (“adult-use”) marijuana. Congress passed legislation dealing with issues like Drug Enforcement Administration policies and veterans’ access to state legal marijuana, among others. And candidates (from both parties) running for high-profile offices — governor, U.S. House, U.S. Senate, even president — are talking about marijuana policy, and not with War on Drugs rhetoric. They are talking reform.

In recent months, one such candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has evolved rapidly on marijuana. In June, he said he didn’t care for marijuana personally and alluded to language about marijuana as a gateway drug. In the fall, he transitioned, saying if he were a voter in a state with a legalization ballot initiative he would “probably vote for it.” Finally, in October, the final stage of Mr. Sanders’ marijuana metamorphosis began, as he filed S. 2237, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2015. In short, the bill removes cannabis from the drug schedules as defined under the Controlled Substances Act, effectively legalizing the drug nationwide. This is a cause long championed by the marijuana reform community in their effort to regulate marijuana like alcohol.

Despite appearing radical on its face, S. 2237 actually supports the status quo. How can this be? Answering this question requires a hefty dose of reality. S. 2237 will not pass the Senate. It will not pass the House. It will not receive a committee hearing. It will die where it currently lives — in a stagnant pool of legislation with no hope whatsoever of advancing in the legislative process. Mr. Sanders knows this, and marijuana reform advocates who think S. 2237 is a powerful opportunity advanced by a champion of the issue are kidding themselves. Mr. Sanders’ bill is intended to score political points, rather than advance serious reform on a complicated and important issue.

If — if — it passed, S. 2237 might make for effective public policy. It might resolve the current, often conflicting and difficult-to-navigate landscape of marijuana policy. But that would only be true if the bill passed. It will not.

In many ways, Mr. Sanders’ proposal is at odds with the reform community’s successful strategic approach: think pragmatically and make progress. As the reform community’s most talented lobbyists from organizations like NORML, Drug Policy Alliance, Marijuana Policy Project and other groups have advanced causes at the federal level, they have done so carefully and professionally. Ultimate goals are always in mind, but realistic expectations are guiding their efforts. They have worked with members of Congress such as Dana Rohrabacher, Sam Farr, Earl Blumenauer, Jared Polis and others to move legislation in the House. They have worked closely with Mr. Sanders’ Senate colleagues to craft the CARERS Act (S. 683) — a five-part reform that would ease federal involvement in medical marijuana policy. The CARERS Act is bold in its reform and is likely a bit ahead of its time for weak-kneed members of Congress to support — despite substantial public support for medical marijuana reform. But it is pragmatic. The bill or parts of the bill will almost certainly become law over the next few years.

Mr. Sanders’ proposal, however, is policy overreach, geared more to pander to a political community of interest than to take seriously that community’s interests. When a bill fails to pass, the status quo wins the day. Due to its lack of pragmatism, Mr. Sanders’ proposal will not mean reform or even a broadening of the conversation related to marijuana scheduling policy. It will mean the status quo — government’s continued designation of cannabis as a Schedule I substance. That’s a policy outcome even Chris Christie could get behind.

If Mr. Sanders is serious about reform, he should look to his colleagues who have advanced more realistic proposals. He could throw his support behind the CARERS Act and sign on as a co-sponsor (he has not). He could join Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon to advance S. 1726, the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act (he has not). He could propose Senate companion legislation for bills such as Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s H.R. 667, the Veterans Equal Access Act (he has not).

The de-scheduling proposal is not serious and not pragmatic. Instead, it reeks strongly of the type of political pandering that Mr. Sanders rails against. If he wants to connect with the marijuana reform community and advance their interests, his current approach is misguided. He needs to bridge the gap between the real and the ideal. If he is unable or, worse, unwilling to do that, it is not the signal of a public official cloaked in principle; it is the mark of a presidential candidate who lacks seriousness.

John Hudak is a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program and managing editor of the FixGov blog.

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