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Bernie Sanders wants to end federal marijuana ban: Will that win the Millennial vote?

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Jim Cole/AP

(Read caption) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, speaks during a campaign stop at the William B. Cashin Senior Activity Center Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, in Manchester, N.H.

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In a move that reflects, and leverages, the changing attitudes of many Americans, Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I) of Vermont, introduced a bill Wednesday that would end the federal prohibition to buy, sell or grow marijuana, the first time such a bill has been introduced in the chamber.

With this bill, Senator Sanders goes beyond what any other 2016 candidate, Democrat or Republican, has proposed in terms of loosening drug laws, a move that may distinguish him from his rivals with voters.

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Sanders' plan would allow states to decide whether they want to legalize pot for recreational or medical use without intervention from the federal government by removing marijuana from the Drug Enforcement Administration's list of the "most dangerous" drugs and from the Controlled Substances Act. As such, marijuana would be regulated in the same way state and local laws now govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco. His Senate bill would also allow marijuana proprietors to participate in the banking system like any other business.

Currently, it is illegal to buy, sell, use, or grow marijuana under federal law, and it is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. Someone in the United States is arrested every minute on marijuana charges, according to a recent FBI report.

Sanders has called that absurd, and said reclassifying marijuana as a less-dangerous substance is an essential component of reforming America's criminal justice system. 

"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 at George Mason University on Oct. 28. “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."

Sanders' stance reflects the shifting attitudes of many Americans toward marijuana legalization.

Some 58 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing pot, according to a Gallup poll released last month, the highest level of support Americans have shown in the 46 years Gallup has polled Americans on this issue.

Younger Americans have always shown the most support of any age group for making marijuana legal. In 1969, 20 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds supported legalization. Today, 71 percent of those in the same age group support it, according to Gallup.

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The Vermont senator certainly recognizes that.

Alaska, Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia all allow recreational pot use, and 23 states have legalized it for medical purposes. Seven more states will likely vote on recreational marijuana legalization in 2016. But in a key presidential swing state, Ohio voters just rejected a plan to legalize recreational and medical use of marijuana.  

Though the bill is a long shot in the Senate, it cements Sanders as the most outspoken voice in the 2016 field on the issue of marijuana. It plays to his base of younger, more liberal voters. And it distinguishes the senator from Hillary Clinton, his rival who has recently been siphoning some of Sanders' supporters.

Mrs. Clinton has suggested a "wait and see" approach, saying she would monitor legalization experiments in states like Colorado and Washington, where pot is legal, before committing to legalization at the federal level.

Which is why on this issue, Sanders has captured the pot vote, writes Consumer Affairs' James Hood, "possibly lighting a fire under millions of potential voters who have so far not been mesmerized by any of the candidates."