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Jobs, the economy, immigration, defense, LGBT rights, abortion. Important issues to be sure, but there's one the presidential candidates have been ignoring until now -- marijuana.

Bernie Sanders broke the embargo last week, possibly lighting a fire under millions of potential voters who have so far not been mesmerized by any of the candidates.

Other candidates, not convinced that the times they are a'changing, have steered clear of the issue, although some political analysts think that public opinion may be rapidly moving in favor of limited legalization, just as it did on same sex marriage.

Gallup recently reported that a majority of Americans continue to say marijuana use should be legal in the United States, with 58% holding that view, tying the high point in Gallup's 46-year trend.

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Equal justice

Knowing which way the wind is blowing is fine, but sometimes you have to blow the smoke in the right direction, as Sanders did by positioning it as a question of equal justice rather than self-indulgence.  

Sanders cited a recent FBI report that someone in the United States is arrested every minute on marijuana charges and said he would take marijuana off the federal government’s list of outlawed drugs.

Speaking at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., to 250 online student meetings in all 50 states, Sanders said he favors removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances regulated by federal law.

“In the United States we have 2.2 million people in jail today, more than any other country. And we’re spending about $80 billion a year to lock people up. We need major changes in our criminal justice system – including changes in drug laws,” Sanders said.

“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,” he added.

Under the senator’s proposal, people in states which legalize marijuana no longer would be subject to federal prosecution for using pot. Owners of stores that sell marijuana could fully participate in the banking system, like any other business.

States which want to regulate marijuana would remain free to do so, the same way local laws now govern sales of alcohol and tobacco. Sanders would continue to allow federal law enforcement officials to arrest and prosecute drug dealers for trafficking in marijuana sales.

Younger voters

Sanders' stance should smell sweet to younger voters, who are frequently difficult to lure to the polls, although older Americans are also beginning to come around on the issue.

According to Gallup, younger Americans, Democrats and independents are the most likely of major demographic and political groups to favor legalization, while Republicans and older Americans are least likely to do so.

Younger Americans have always shown the most support of any age group for making marijuana legal, but this has grown from 20% of 18- to 34-year-olds in 1969 to 71% of those in the same age group today, Gallup said.

But even seniors are becoming more mellow on the question. Gallup says 35% of today's seniors -- many of whom have been smoking weed since the 60s -- are in favor of legalization, compared with 4% in 1969.

Among all age groups, the increase in support has been proportionately greater over the last 15 years than it was between any of the earlier time periods.

No stampede

So far, there's no stampede by other candidates to get in line. Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that federal restrictions should be loosened in states where marijuana is legal but has declined to go beyond that.

Most Republicans are even less sympathetic. Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) has said he would crack down on all illegal substances and Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) vigorously opposes legalization.

Kasich may want to stay alert, however. Voters in Ohio will decide in tomorrow's election whether they want to legalize pot in their state.  

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) brands himself a Libertarian and might be expected to lean towards legalization. And maybe he does. He reportedly raised more than $100,000 at a Colorado marijuana industry conference and has previously called for marijuana decriminalization. 

Paul is co-sponsor of the CARERS Act, which would permit states to create medical marijuana rules without federal interference, and he’s co-sponsored a bill that would help marijuana businesses obtain bank accounts, a measure Sanders also supports. But he hasn't made the issue a rallying cry of his campaign, at least not yet.

Politicians are often -- some would say usually -- slow to embrace changing attitudes, but with more than a year to go until the presidential election, there's plenty of time to clear the air on marijuana.


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