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Bernie Sanders Rallies Students, Calls For Ending Federal Pot Ban

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

During last night's Republican debate, Bernie Sanders tried some counter programming. The Democratic candidate has sent out Twitter commentary during past GOP debates. Last night, he simply stepped before an audience of his own. NPR's Tamara Keith attended Sanders' National Student Town Hall meeting.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: About 1,500 people, mostly students, stood in line in the rain to get into the concert hall at George Mason University in suburban Washington, D.C. to see Bernie Sanders. And let's just say they were enthusiastic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Yelling) Do you feel the Bern?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I feel the Bern.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Yelling) Do you feel the Bern?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I feel the Bern.

KEITH: Sanders told the crowd they weren't the only ones watching. Thousands of students on 300 campuses in every state in the Union were joining in from their rec rooms and lecture halls via a live video stream.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: You owe me big. I'm keeping you away from that Republican debate, so...

KEITH: This is a natural audience for Sanders, who has strong support among younger voters. And he chose this venue to make a little news that is likely to be well received by the college set.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: In my view, the time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: Sanders would remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances regulated by the federal government, allowing states to tax and regulate the drug as they see fit. This, he said, would especially help African-Americans, who are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That is wrong. That has got to change.

KEITH: Other candidates have talked about this idea, but a leading legalization advocate says Sanders appears to be going further. Sanders then largely delivered his standard stump speech before opening the floor to questions, both from in the room and from those watching online. But one moment stands out. It was the last question. A young Muslim woman wearing a headscarf asked him about Islamophobia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REMAZ ABDELGADER: Hearing the rhetoric that's going on in the media makes me sick because I, as an individual, am constantly trying to raise awareness and make sure that everyone is treated equally in this country. So to the next president of the United States, what do you think about that?

KEITH: Sanders called her up onto stage, putting his arm around her, and the crowd broke out into cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDERS: Let me be very personal here if I might. I'm Jewish.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: My father's family died in concentration camps. I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism which has existed for far too many years.

KEITH: Sanders usually sticks to facts and figures and skips the pleasantries and personal narratives employed by other politicians. This was a different sort of Bernie Sanders. And afterwards, students said they were struck by how relatable he was. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Fairfax, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.