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On the stump, Bernie Sanders makes pitch for legal pot in California

On the stump, Bernie Sanders makes pitch for legal pot in California
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in East Los Angeles on Monday. Sanders said he supports the effort to legalize recreational marijuana in California. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)

For Californians resolved to one day entering a dispensary and purchasing pre-rolled joints or marijuana-infused cookies — all for recreational use — a high-profile ally who lives 3,000 miles away has emerged.

As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders darts across the state ahead of the June 7 Democratic presidential primary, he's seamlessly woven into his pitch to voters an unyielding message of support for an effort that would legalize recreational pot in California.

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"It makes sense to legalize marijuana at this particular point," Sanders told supporters this week on a dusty softball field at a park in East Los Angeles where, like at many of his outdoor events in California, a slightly pungent pot aroma wafted through the air. "So if I were here in your state, I would vote yes on that issue."

For Sanders, down in delegates and faced with an uphill climb against Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, his endorsement of the measure appears to be an effort to corral support. A poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California showed 60% of residents support legalizing pot, and referencing the issue at each of his rallies in Southern California this week often garnered Sanders the loudest applause at each event. 

The proposed Adult Use of Marijuana Act would, among other things, allow adults 21 and older to purchase up to an ounce of marijuana for recreational use and to grow as many as six plants in their home. A retail tax of 15% would be imposed on all sales.

If I were here in your state, I would vote yes on that issue.


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Supporters of the effort, including former Facebook President Sean Parker, who has helped bankroll the initiative, submitted 600,000 signatures to state elections officials this month, and the proposal is widely expected to appear on the November ballot. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use.

Sanders' support is representative of a change in attitudes toward marijuana, said Jason Kinney, a spokesman for the pro-legalization initiative. Pot is already legal for recreational use in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington state. And in addition to California, voters in Arizona, Maine and Nevada will probably cast ballots this fall on full-legalization initiatives.

"This is one of those issues where the people lead the politicians," Kinney said. "That was true to some extent on LGBT rights and marriage equality, and it's appearing to be true on marijuana legalization."

Sanders' stance on marijuana is not new — he has supported taking marijuana out of the federal Controlled Substances Act and has said the decision to legalize pot for recreational use should be decided by the states.

But he has been more vocal about his backing for it in California, where he is making what amounts to a last stand for his candidacy, than he was in earlier voting states.

Last fall, during a candidates debate in Las Vegas, Sanders indicated his support for a legalization initiative in Nevada.

"I suspect I would vote yes," a hesitant Sanders said when asked whether he would support the measure.

He has made more of an unequivocal endorsement of legalization on the trail in Southern California this month. From San Diego to San Bernardino, Sanders has voiced his support for the effort and has said that minorities, particularly young people, are disproportionately affected by petty marijuana offenses, citing that as one of his prime reasons for backing legalization.

"If you are a 19-year-old kid applying for a job and your employer asks you if you've ever been arrested and you say, 'Well, yeah, I was smoking marijuana,' you may not get that job," Sanders told a crowd in Santa Monica this week.

He added, to deafening applause, "I tell you that if I lived in your state, I would vote for that initiative."

For opponents of the push to legalize pot, Sanders' overt support in California is viewed with skepticism.

"He's doing some good old political pandering," said Scott Chipman, Southern California chair of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana. The nonpartisan group was founded in advance of Proposition 19, an initiative that would have legalized various marijuana-related activities in California, and was defeated in 2010 by seven percentage points.

"[Sanders] doesn't care about California's public health and safety," Chipman said.

And even some legalization supporters are questioning Sanders' intentions. Entertainer Tommy Chong, a marijuana enthusiast and supporter of Sanders, was critical of the senator after being disinvited from introducing him in East Los Angeles this week.

"It's lip service to get the votes," Chong told the Hollywood Reporter. "It was an insult."

Jeff Weaver, Sanders' campaign manager, pushed back against that notion, saying Sanders has always believed that legalized pot is a states' rights issue and that if it were on the ballot in Vermont, he would actively campaign and vote for it.

Clinton has taken a more measured approach. In response to a similar marijuana question during the Las Vegas debate, the former secretary of State declined to take a position on recreational marijuana use, calling for a wait-and-see approach.

"We have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today," she said. Clinton's campaign did not respond to a request for comment about the legalization effort in California.

Some of Clinton's most prominent supporters in the state, such as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor in 2018, support the initiative.

Julia Goldfarb-Sousa, 23, a waitress in Redlands, attended Sanders' rally in San Bernardino on Tuesday. She uses marijuana medicinally for migraines and anxiety and supports legalizing it for recreational use.

"This is just a plant; it's better than any drug being pushed by the pharmaceutical industry — it's natural," said Goldfarb-Sousa, noting that she took a few puffs from her pipe before attending the rally. "To hear Bernie speak out so strongly for it only reaffirms my support for it's full legalization and for him."

For more political news, follow @kurtisalee

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