He made the announcement as Republican presidential candidates took to the debate stage in across the country in Boulder, Colorado, the first state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana under state law.
“It is time to tax and regulate marijuana,” Sanders said. “It is time to end the arrest of so many people and the destruction of so many lives for the possession marijuana."
According to the campaign, Sanders is not proposing the instant legalization of pot, but instead essentially a sweeping de-classification, whereby states would be free to write their own laws regarding the drug, like they currently do with to alcohol and tobacco.
The change would remove any threat of federal prosecution, which currently still exists, for those who buy or use in states where the drug is legal under state law.
"Those states that chose to go to further, can then tax marijuana like they tax alcohol and cigarettes and in fact earn a substantial amount of money,” he said, addressing about 2,000 students in the university auditorium and many more at viewing parties on college campus across the country. The event was designed to focus on student-issues.
Sanders’s pot proposal for goes further than either of Sanders’s opponents for the Democratic Party nomination.
Hillary Clinton has said that as president she would set aside federal dollars to increase treatment for drug addicts and would direct the Justice Department to prioritize treatment over incarceration for low-level, non-violent drug crimes. However, she has not taken a position on decriminalization, saying instead that she wants to wait and see the how the new legalization measures in Colorado, Washington and other states work.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and he has said he supports a less strict federal classification for the drug. Last month he conducted a roundtable with marijuana advocates in Colorado.
Nationwide, support for the decriminalization of pot has grown and Sanders remarks were well-received in the room, particularly as he emphasized racial inequities in drug arrest.
“Personally, I think it's stupid it's still illegal,” Sarah Katzenstein a sophomore at George Mason University from Miami Beach, Florida, told ABC News. Katzenstein said she knew people with about criminal records because of marijuana.
“Ok, they made stupid decisions in high school, but that shouldn't ruin their lives,” she continued.
Her friend, Aurora Johnston, also a sophomore, wore a Bernie Sanders t-shirt to the event. She added that she thought most college kids agreed with Sanders.
“Some people get years and years in jail for marijuana. I mean there are rapists,” Johnston said rolling her eyes. “My friends and majority of college kids, they agree, but I don't know about the population as a whole.”