Politics & Policy

Sanders Campaign Pushes Pot Reform, Shrugs off Clinton Surge in Virginia

Sanders works the crowd at George Mason University. (Alex Wong/Getty)

Say what you will about Bernie Sanders’s shortcomings as a campaigner — the man sure knows how to play to his base.

In front of thousands of adoring college students at Virginia’s George Mason University, and thousands more watching online at 250 student meetings across the country, the underdog Democratic presidential candidate promised Wednesday to remove marijuana from the federal government’s list of controlled substances.

“Right now, marijuana is listed by the federal government as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it is considered to be as dangerous as heroin. That is absurd,” he thundered. “In my view, the time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana. In my view, states should have the right to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws now govern the sales of alcohol or tobacco.”

The crowd went wild.

The Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist isn’t personally a fan of the drug. “I smoked marijuana twice. [It] didn’t quite work for me,” he said last summer.

RELATED: How Far Out Is Bernie Sanders? This Far Out …

But as his Republican counterparts duked it out in Colorado, Sanders seemed determined to make news of his own by ending any doubts about his political stance on pot. Though he wouldn’t actually legalize the drug, he would give states full latitude to treat it as they see fit, free of influence from the Drug Enforcement Administration. And he would give businesses selling it access to the banking industry, without fear of a federal crackdown.

Though he wouldn’t actually legalize the drug, he would give states full latitude to treat it as they see fit, free of influence from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In short, it would constitute a sea-change in federal marijuana policy. And it represents another contrast between Sanders and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton voiced her support for medical marijuana at this month’s Democratic debate, she said she was not ready to take a position on legalizing the drug just yet.

Still, Sanders’s latest policy push seems unlikely to blunt the surge of momentum the Clinton campaign has enjoyed over the past two weeks. Michael Briggs, the Sanders campaign’s communications director, says that was never the idea in the first place.

“That wasn’t part of the calculation going into tonight,” he tells National Review. “[The proposal is] driven by his overall view that our criminal-justice system needs to be reformed, and that way too many people who are in prison now are in there for marijuana possession.”

#share#Then what about the specter of a Clinton sudden surge — particularly in Iowa, where two polls yesterday showed the former secretary of state 40 points ahead of Sanders?

“I don’t know anybody who looks at this seriously who takes those polls seriously,” says Briggs. “You gotta have a story every hour, [and] that was that hour’s story. People will move on, and I predict by the end of the week they’ll be forgotten.”

That may be true — even Clinton’s own communications director disputed the accuracy of the two Iowa polls. But in a light drizzle outside the George Mason University auditorium — as a group of students in zombie costumes wave pro-Sanders signs and chant “Undead, no debt!” — some young supporters of the Vermont senator express nerves over the state of the Democratic race.

RELATED: Bernie’s Strange Brew of Nationalism and Socialism

“Biden, if he was gonna take votes from anyone, it was gonna be [Clinton],” says Cody Fishel, a student supporter of Sanders who wishes the vice president hadn’t passed on a White House run. “I thought that was a good opportunity for Bernie that kind of passed.”

Others believe Clinton’s surge after the Democratic debate and her appearance before the House Benghazi committee is overstated — perhaps purposefully so. “It’s a little bit of a conspiracy theory, but I feel like after that CNN debate she got way more respect than she deserved,” says student Aaron Benson.

#related#“The media says that she won [the debate], but the media is one of her largest donors,” says Amy Milyko, a local supporter from northern Virginia. “So can you really trust what the media says?”

Still, even the most ardent Sanders devotees say he needs to start attacking Clinton more forcefully, as he did during last weekend’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa. He did it again, very discreetly, during Wednesday’s speech, when he boasted about his vote against the war in Iraq as a senator in 2002. (Clinton, of course, voted to authorize that conflict.)

“I’ve noticed that he’s started to taking the gloves off a little bit more when it comes to Clinton, and that’s good,” says Fishel. “You can only play nice guy for so long. At the end of the day, it’s a battle to win the nomination. And he’s got to get in it.”

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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