FAIRFAX, Va. - Sen. Bernie Sanders said Wednesday that if elected president he would seek to remove marijuana from a list of drugs deemed illegal by the federal government, freeing up states to regulate pot like alcohol or tobacco.
The Democratic presidential candidate said the nation's massive prison population and more than 600,000 arrests last year for marijuana possession demand a shift in the country's drug laws. He said the problem has a racial disparity as well - a black person is nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana than a white person.
"Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That's wrong. That has got to change," Sanders (I., Vt.) said at a town-hall meeting in Virginia with college students at George Mason University. The event was broadcast online to gatherings on 300 campuses in 50 states.
Under the plan, states would have the right to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws currently govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco. It would allow businesses in states that have legalized marijuana to use the banking system without fear of federal prosecution.
The senator would call for marijuana to be removed from the so-called Schedule 1 of controlled substances regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Sanders' policy proposal, which was first reported by the Washington Post, separates him from Democratic rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Martin O'Malley.
Clinton has said she wants to see how the legalization of recreational marijuana plays out in states like Colorado and Washington. O'Malley wants to reclassify marijuana under federal drug laws and make it a so-called Schedule 2 drug, similar to cocaine.
Schedule 1 drugs are considered to have a greater potential for abuse and pose a safety issue.
The issue has played a minor role in the Democratic primary campaign so far. In the first debate in Las Vegas last month, Clinton noted her support of medical marijuana and backed stopping the imprisonment of people who use marijuana. Sanders signaled support for a Nevada proposal legalizing recreational marijuana use next year.
Four states have legalized recreational marijuana: Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Under the Sanders plan, people in states that legalize marijuana would no longer be subject to federal prosecution for using pot.
The senator said that if some states went forward, it could lead to new revenues for states that could be used to fight the effects of substance abuse from drugs such as heroin that have ravaged communities.