Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) in his first-ever campaign for the Senate made the legalization of all drug use one of the cornerstones of his policy platform.
Recruited in a 1972 special election as the Senate candidate for Vermont's Liberty Union Party, Sanders promised that if elected, "All laws relating to prohibition of abortion, birth control, homosexual relations, and the use of drugs would be done away with," the Rutland Daily Herald reported in December 1971.
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"In a free society, individuals and not government have the right to decide what is best for their own lives, as long as their actions do not harm others," Sanders said during the campaign for the seat he would eventually win in 2006.
These latest comments come as Sanders takes the lead in national polling of the 2020 Democratic primary and looks poised to sweep the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. They offer yet another example—like his 1972 claim that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was "almost as bad as what Hitler did"—of the youthful radicalism Sanders exemplified at the start of his career as Vermont's premier socialist. In fact, the position is so radical that not only do the overwhelming majority of voters oppose it, but even Sanders himself has since shied away.
As a candidate with the Liberty Union Party—today Vermont's fourth-largest party—Sanders and fellow House candidate Doris Lake pushed a platform well outside the mainstream of American thought, even in the 1970s. For Sanders and Lake, the drug issue came down to personal autonomy: "All the issues are really related to individual rights—the right of a man or woman to control his or her own life," Lake told the Daily Herald.
Sanders's left-lean on drugs persisted into his gubernatorial campaign the following year, when he drew applause from students at Mount Anthony Union High School with a plug for "the British system of hard drug treatment," under which people with a history of severe, otherwise untreatable opioid addiction are given diacetylmorphine—i.e., heroin—by the government. (The idea, the nonpartisan RAND Institute argued in 2018, has experimental evidence backing it up but also has a low chance of being popular in surrounding communities.)
Since his halcyon days as the winner of a mere 2,000 votes in his first Senate run, Sanders has stepped back on full legalization. His 2020 presidential campaign includes a promise to legalize marijuana within his first 100 days in office, an end-run around Congress justified on the basis of mistruths about a link to mass incarceration. In August, however, Sanders explicitly ruled out legalizing other drugs, telling radio host and endorser Joe Rogan that he would not support full legalization "at this point."
The difference in support may come down to simple polling. Two-in-three Americans support legalizing marijuana, including a majority of Republicans. But for most other substances, fewer than 1-in-10 support recreational legalization of drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin, a Vox/Morning Consult poll found in 2016.
At the same time, Sanders's youthful idealism may have been eroded by the reality of what CDC data recently confirmed—the country is experiencing the worst drug crisis in American history. That same drug crisis, research has repeatedly shown, was primed by the marketing and sale of potent, but legal, prescription opioids. Sanders has repeatedly pushed to hold the dealers in these legal drugs criminally liable for their actions.