Marijuana had a major moment at the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders coming close to endorsing legalization, which is something no major candidate has so far been willing to do.
But as he explained his position -- which drew multiple rounds of applause -- he strayed from the facts, repeating a long-debunked myth about prisons overflowing with marijuana offenders. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stayed neutral on legalization, but made the same mistake as Sanders as she tried to connect marijuana legalization to prison reform.
CNN's Juan Carlos Lopez set up the exchange by referencing the legalization movement in Nevada, one of at least a half dozen states that could follow Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska in creating a regulated marijuana market.
"Sen. Sanders, right here in Nevada, there will be a measure to legalize recreational marijuana on the 2016 ballot," said Cooper. "If you were a Nevada resident, how would you vote?"
"I suspect I would vote yes," Sanders said.
The room erupted in applause. But Sanders, who has admitted to smoking pot in the past, based his position on a hoary old lie that marijuana prohibition is a major contributor to America's overcrowded prison system.
"And I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses," Sanders said. "We are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana."
That's not true, according to prison records compiled by the authors of "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know,” published in 2012 by Oxford University Press. The book is the work of four scholars who collectively bring nearly 70 years of experience to the issue.
They found that about 700,000 people are arrested on possession charges every year, a large number to be sure. But virtually none of those folks end up in prison. In fact, fewer than 400 people are serving state or federal sentences for marijuana possession alone, and many of those people plead down to that charge, or have serious histories of violence, the authors concluded.
But after a second round of applause, Sanders continued to argue for softer pot laws as though they are related to the more than 1.5 million people in county, state or federal prison in America.
"We need to rethink our criminal justice system ... we've got a lot of work to do in that area," he said.
Clinton then made the same false connection, prompted by a different question.
"Secretary Clinton," Lopez said. "When asked about legalizing recreational marijuana, you told her [CNN's Christiane Amanpour] let's wait and see how it plays out in Colorado and Washington. It's been more than a year since you've said that. Are you ready to take a position tonight?"
"No," Clinton said, to a noticeable absence of applause. "I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today."
"But," she added, "I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana. Therefore, we need more states, cities and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don't have this terrible result that Sen. Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana."
Again, there is not a legion of pot smokers or even pot dealers in prison primarily due to marijuana, according to the best available data. There are a lot of people in this country behind bars for other drug charges, but if Sanders and Clinton are ready to consider legalizing all drugs, they have yet to say it.