What Drug Policies Did the “Bernie’s Back” Rally Crowd Want?

    Senator Bernie Sanders took the stage at a rally of about 25,000 supporters in Queensbridge Park, New York City on October 19. It marked his return to the 2020 presidential campaign trail after recently suffering a heart attack. “I am happy to report to you that I am more than ready—more ready than ever—to carry on with you on the epic struggle that we face today,” he told the crowd. “To put it bluntly, I am back!”

    Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY, 14th District) spoke before Sanders, formally endorsing his candidacy. Other speakers from the progressive world included his national campaign co-chair Nina Turner; Queens County DA candidate Tiffany Cabán; San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz; and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.

    On substance, the “Bernie’s Back” rally was just what you’d expect. Sanders and his surrogates touched on issues including universal healthcare, mass incarceration and institutional racism. The crowd roared back with chants including “Green New Deal!”, “End the wars!”, “We will win!” and “Eat the rich!”

    Speakers used the physical setting to drive home messages about nationwide economic and social inequality. Queensbridge Park, in the shadow of Queensboro Bridge, is across the East River from Manhattan, with all its financial and cultural wealth. It is also across the street from Queensbridge Houses—the largest public housing complex in the US.

    “Public housing is underfunded by $30 billion and that is no accident,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “[It is] an outcome of a system that devalues the poor and working people and prioritizes buildings like those”—pointing to the Manhattan skyscrapers—“over buildings like these,” pointing to the Queensbridge Houses.

    I attended the rally on a chilly Saturday morning in part to hear more about the candidate’s drug policy platform—Sanders missed a recent harm reduction summit in Iowa due to his illness—but also to ask his supporters about what reforms they want to see at the federal level.

    Senator Bernie Sanders with his wife, Jane, children, and grandchildren.

    The candidate’s only specific mentions of drug policy related to marijuana legalization and opioid manufacturers.

    “We’re going to end the horrifically destructive War on Drugs.”

    But he also linked drug policy reform to inequities and abuses in the criminal justice system: “We are going to end our broken and racist criminal justice system,” he said. “We are going to end the international embarrassment of having more people in jail in America than any other country on Earth. Instead of spending $80 billion a year on jails and incarceration, we are going to invest in our young people, in jobs and education.”

    “We’re going to end private prisons and detention centers in America,” he continued. “We’re going to end the horrifically destructive War on Drugs and legalize marijuana. We’re going to end the disgrace of 400,000 people right now locked behind bars because they’re too poor to afford cash bail.”

    He also referenced the issue of jail-time for opioid manufacturers, on which Filter reported last week when it arose in the latest Democratic debate: “It seems to me a little absurd that we have people in jail right now for selling marijuana, while we have crooks on Wall Street and in the drug companies who have killed people all over this country not facing any criminal charges. How do you pay billions of dollars in fines for illegal behavior and get no criminal charges against the CEOs? What we believe in is equal justice under the law, whether you’re rich or whether you’re poor.”

    After the rally ended, I stuck around to ask some of Sanders’ supporters what they thought about his drug policy reform platform. “It’s important that we at least decriminalize marijuana, if not legalize it,” said Noel of Jamaica, Queens, “so we can lower the incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos.” He endorsed a system modeled after drug decriminalization in Portugal.

    Noel emphasized Sanders’ focus on institutional racism. “I don’t see a lot of other candidates talking about how other issues like pollution affect communities of color. You don’t see [facilities like the Ravenswood Generating Station] in richer and whiter communities.” Like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, Noel was referencing the electric power facility located just north of the park, which has been linked to asthma and other health complications in the area.

    “Incarceration is not a useful way to respond to drug use and addiction.”

    Other Sanders supporters are also thinking about harm reduction. “Incarceration is not a useful way to respond to drug use and addiction,” said Berenice of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. “I’d really like to see an expansion of programs that treat things like opioid addiction as public health crises rather than criminal behaviors. For me that includes harm reduction programs like safe needle exchanges, education, HIV prevention, and more funding for drug rehabilitation and treatment.

    Berenice explained how one of Sanders’ signature legislative proposals, “Medicare-for-all,” would impact people who use drugs. “What should could and should be included in that is the right for everyone to receive addiction treatment services like medically supervised detox and residential treatment. In my current work I meet a lot of people who are interested in those services but have no way to access them.”

    Berenice works for an organization that provides homeless outreach and support services. To her point, the text of Sanders’ proposal states that Medicare will cover “mental health and substance abuse treatment services, including inpatient care.”

    Asked what model of cannabis legalization Sanders would implement, David, of Manhattan, said, “My feeling is he’d have no problem with legalization like they have in Colorado or in California. It should be done where you know the quality and dosage of the product, and where there’s education in school about what happens when you use these drugs.”

    “To me, harm reduction means it’s not just about drugs, but you have to start from the ground up.”

    Another Sanders supporter, Susannah of Brooklyn, elaborated on a holistic, societal approach to reducing drug-related harms. “If we have a stronger social structure with better community services, that people are more engaged in, they will be less likely to get in trouble or experience vulnerabilities,” she said. “If people are in a desperate situation but they have no one to help them, that will only exacerbate their drug use. To me, harm reduction means it’s not just about drugs, but you have to start from the ground up, with strong families and schools.”

    As long as Sanders remains in the presidential race, it seems that many of his supporters will pressure him to go further on drug policy reform. Whether this includes marijuana criminal record expungement, full drug decriminalization, or more aggressively funding harm reduction and overdose prevention programs, there is scope for Sanders’ energized movement to go further.


    Images courtesy of Bernie Sanders via Facebook.

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