July 17, 2024

Joycelyn Elders Approves of Sander’s Marijuana Legalization Plan

Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders is most known for taking stances such as support for comprehensive sex education that included education on masturbation that were not just controversial with the general public, but during the Clinton administration as well. She also received disapproval during her tenure for saying that marijuana legalization should be studied.

A pediatrician, Dr. Elders served as Surgeon General in the Clinton administration. In 1993, she opined that drug legalization should be studied as a possible way to reduce crime, which drew criticism from the White House as well as tough-on-crime politicians more broadly. “I felt like the government should be involved in studying it, and, if necessary, legalizing it,” she said, “so that it could be taxed and the funds used to make a real difference.”

She was forced to resign as Surgeon General because of these unpopular positions. Elders has since come out to endorse the marijuana legalization proposal of Senator Bernie Sanders. Although marijuana legalization has become increasingly more popular with Americans, who support it at 58 percent, Sanders has found no Senator to co-sponsor legislation to legalize marijuana.

According to a Sanders press release, Hillary Clinton also supports a different approach to the issue:

 “I am glad to see Secretary Clinton is beginning to address an issue that my legislation addressed,” he (Bernie Sanders) said, “but her approach ignored the major issue. Secretary Clinton would classify marijuana in the same category as cocaine and continue to make marijuana a federally regulated substance.

Clinton has “evolved” again on another stance. Her solution is that marijuana could be moved to a Schedule II substance meaning it would be classed as a highly addictive substance like cocaine that is being studied for medical use. However, that would still make marijuana illegal, and would contribute to our overcrowded prisons for nonviolent  and non-property related offenses like possession. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the world. If Clinton evolved further and supported marijuana legalization, it would help to make amends for her support of her husband’s “Three Strikes” bill in 1994, that she initially supported.

 “We will finally be able to say, loudly and clearly, that for repeat, violent, criminal offenders: three strikes and you’re out. We are tired of putting you back in through the revolving door,” Clinton said in 1994.

The Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994 has disproportionately affected the Black and Latino communities where there is documented evidence that they receive a longer sentence for the same crime as whites.

Sentences imposed on Black males in the federal system are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. Black and Latino offenders sentenced in state and federal courts face significantly greater odds of incarceration than similarly situated white offenders and receive longer sentences than their white counterparts in some jurisdictions. Black male federal defendants receive longer sentences than whites arrested for the same offenses and with comparable criminal histories.

[Image via Flickr Michael Vadon Creative Common License modified with consent]
[Image via Flickr Michael Vadon Creative Common License modified with consent]

To get an idea of the scope of the problem, this is the data of the makeup of the American prison system:

Fifty percent (95,800) of sentenced inmates in federal prison on September 30, 2014 (the most recent date for which federal offense data are available) were serving time for drug offenses.


Almost 16% of state prisoners were convicted drug offenders (208,000 inmates), including 24% of all females in state prison (22,000 inmates) and 15% of all males in state prison (186,000 inmates).

Sander’s racial justice policies reflect and acknowledge that:

Millions of lives have been destroyed because people are in jail for nonviolent crimes. For decades, we have been engaged in a failed “War on Drugs” with racially-biased mandatory minimums that punish people of color unfairly.

It would be nice to see Sanders articulate his drug policy even further. For example, marijuana could be controlled and regulated like cigarettes and alcohol are. A marijuana tax could be used to fund drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration. America’s prisons are not the place to solve drug addiction.

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