"Nobody should be in jail for smoking marijuana." That is according to presidential hopeful Joe Biden who spoke to voters at a house party in Nashua, New Hampshire last week. But Biden’s stance on marijuana stops short of legalization. Although no one should spend time in jail for smoking marijuana, according to Biden, no one should be smoking marijuana, period.
In an attempt to clarify Biden’s position, Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden campaign told CNN, that Biden "would allow states to continue to make their own choices regarding legalization and would seek to make it easier to conduct research on marijuana's positive and negative health impacts by rescheduling it as a schedule 2 drug." Bates further clarified that Biden “supports decriminalizing marijuana and automatically expunging prior criminal records for marijuana possession, so those affected don't have to figure out how to petition for it or pay for a lawyer."
Interestingly, Biden, who became the instant front-runner the day he announced his campaign, is the only 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who has not called for federal legalization. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, arguably the most ardent legal marijuana advocate in the race, has introduced the Marijuana Justice Act in the Senate. Should the bill reach the end zone and be signed by Pres. Trump, it would officially legalize marijuana and put regulatory powers in the hands of the states. It would also expunge the records of those convicted of marijuana possession.
Several Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Joe Biden’s evolving position on marijuana
Biden does have a track record of being tough on casual drug users. However, in more recent years he has toned down the anti-drug rhetoric. In a 1989 video, then a United States senator from Delaware and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden gave a lecture to students at Wake Forest University in which he railed against cannabis legalization. In a Q&A session after his speech, Biden asked, “Is it proper and legitimate for a government to take an action which we know expressly will lead to the mental and physical demise of an individual?” Answering his own question he stated, “I say no.”
Shortly thereafter, Biden admitted that, although legalization would cut into the profits of drug lords and reduce the violence associated with drug trafficking, legalizing drugs would pose a “significant moral hurdle” for the government, because “unlike the case with alcohol, you cannot be a recreational user.”
During his years in the Senate, the Former Vice President was not only openly opposed to legalizing marijuana but was intimately involved in establishing mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana convictions. He was also intimately involved with the creation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, also known as the "drug czar".
There is evidence of an evolution in Bidens thinking on the matter. In December 2010, in an interview with ABC News, Biden called marijuana a “gateway drug.” Then three years later Biden told Time magazine that although he was against legalization, he felt that “focusing significant resources” on convicting people for smoking marijuana was a waste of government resources.
Today, according to Bates’ statement, Biden would allow states “to continue to make their own choices regarding legalization. Although today, Biden’s position is still center of left, some could argue that Biden’s softening on the matter isn’t new. At the end of his Senate career, he did support efforts to reduce the sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. And some advocates argue that Biden’s new stance on the matter of marijuana, although tepid, is just enough to bring sense to the country’s marijuana laws.
However, Michael Collins, director of national affairs for Drug Policy Action, told Marijuana Moment, “It’s not enough to casually support marijuana decriminalization. That’s a 2008 position. Biden should recognize that marijuana must be legalized through the lens of social justice, with expungement and industry diversity as the key planks of any position. That’s what most of the other candidates support and it’s what the base wants so there’s no excuse.”
And, according to a statement by NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri, "Joe Biden has an abysmal record when it comes to marijuana law reform, ending our failed war on drugs, and addressing mass incarceration. Biden's views are far out of step with the American public and he holds the worst record on cannabis-related policy of any individual currently running for the Democratic or Republican nomination."
On the other hand, Steve Hawkins, executive director of Marijuana Policy Project is “not prepared to write [Biden] off” just yet. He says “Hopefully, we will see [Biden] embrace the fact that there’s been that shift in public attitude.”
Hawkins also points out that Biden “has come to recognize that our mass incarceration system has been fueled by the war on drugs.”
In a 2008 Senate hearing, Biden said, “The school of thought was that we had to do everything we could to dissuade the use of crack cocaine. And so I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then because I think the disparity is way out of line.”
Although Biden has not expressed his support of current legislative efforts to decriminalize marijuana, it is looking more and more likely that he would sign off on a federal overhaul of drug policy.
"[Biden] needs to address his history as one of the architects of many of our nation's draconic drug policies, apologize for these mistakes, and present a plan to right the wrongs that criminalization has wrought upon millions of people, principally those in minority and poor communities, if he wants to even be considered by anyone who prioritizes real criminal justice reform." — NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri
Decriminalization is not legalization. If the federal government were to allow states to deal with marijuana in their own way, you’d still be subject to possible fines if you were to be caught, say, smoking a joint on federal property. And although it does nothing to right the wrongs perpetuated by the federal government or help to determine how marijuana can benefit medicine and society as a whole, decriminalization is a giant leap in the right direction.
Most importantly, cannabis reform advocates can find comfort in the fact that there is not one serious contender in the 2020 race for president who does not advocate for federal cannabis policy reform. And that’s a great sign of the times.