With the U.S. presidential election looming, it’s time to answer the cannabis question: Does Biden support legalization?
It’s true that so far the former vice president has remained oddly quiet on an issue that has both overwhelming public support and has shown to be effective at mobilizing progressive voters. That’s right – a ton of Americans support legalization – but does Joe Biden?
But it’s also true that Biden has a history of biting his tongue on important issues — gay marriage comes to mind — before coming out for them later. Still, the lack of a full-throated call for legalization troubles pro-pot voters. There’s virtually no political downside to endorsing legalization.
Could it be true the septuagenarian moderate who is somehow mounting the most ambitiously progressive campaign in U.S. history is swayed by reefer madness?
Does Biden Support Legalization?
Saying that Biden does not support legalization is an oversimplification. His views on cannabis don’t go nearly far enough, but he does have some better-than-nothing ideas toward progress.
Biden has promised to decriminalize cannabis, which would turn arrests into simple fines. He wants to expunge all cannabis consumption convictions and do away with mandatory minimum sentencing.
Biden also wants to make it easier for states to own cannabis regulations and have the federal government get out of the affair completely, making banking and commerce easier for cannabis companies.
He also promised to de-schedule cannabis from the federal registry, making it exactly like alcohol and tobacco in the eyes of the feds.
Those are laudable goals, but they’re decades behind Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker —politicians who have taken steps toward national cannabis policies that include legalization. Biden’s reticence to get with the times stem, he says, from the unknowns about the health effects of cannabis.
What unknowns? His campaign won’t give a straight answer. Cannabis has been used for thousands of years and continues today at a high clip. Most Americans want to see cannabis legalized, and most American adults have consumed cannabis at some point during their lives.
If it contributed to some sort of public health crisis, wouldn’t the people in Amsterdam, or even Colorado, have proven that by now? What more proof can he want?
Can Biden be Persuaded?
There could be any number of reasons for Biden’s lukewarm position on cannabis. For one thing, he lives a staid and substance-free life. Growing up, he saw the damage alcohol did to his family. And although he abstains, he witnessed his son’s struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. Biden may be extra-sensitive to the harms of mind-altering substances.
He’s also old. At 77 years old, he belongs to the generation of Americans least likely to support cannabis legalization — but the one that’s doing the most converting as well. Biden, like many in his cohort, could simply yet have seen the light.
If Biden is serious that Trump is a threat to America and democracy worldwide, he should be willing to revamp his views on cannabis in order to get elected. But it’s unlikely the Biden team believes the election is tight enough to need an extra push from cannabis voters.
State-Level More Likely
That’s probably the right call. After all, for many years now, pro-cannabis outfits have realized that success at the state level is far more attainable than on a country-wide scale.
It could be another story if Biden needed the Black vote. His past policies — specifically on drug laws and police reform — would seem to warrant some loss of trust. But that hasn’t been the case. Biden consistently led among African-American voters during the Democratic primaries.
According to the NYT/Siena June 2020 poll, Biden has a seventy-six point lead over Trump with Black voters, a thirty-six point lead with Hispanics, and is up thirty-eight points with voters under 30. He’s also polling well with white voters in key battleground states — and voters over sixty-five, which is rare for a Democrat.
It may be that Biden simply doesn’t need cannabis legalization as an issue. His coalition already includes most cannabis voters anyway. His campaign might believe that flip-flopping on this issue would lose more votes than it gains.
If the answer to, “Does Biden support legalization?” is going to flip from “not really” to “yes” it’s going to something bigger.
The Vice President Dilemma
Biden won’t run on his own, and if his VP pick has a strong pro-cannabis record that could change the debate.
The frontrunner, Sen. Kamala Harris, has a checkered history with pot reform. In her former work as a California attorney general, she locked up thousands of people for cannabis crimes — seemingly with zeal.
While mounting her own presidential campaign, however, Harris flipped her stance. She even co-sponsored the MORE Act, which would have legalized cannabis nationwide, expunged records of weed arrests, and earmarked federal funds for weed entrepreneurs who are also people of color.
Other candidates, like Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and longtime Democratic operative Susan Rice, have not come out for cannabis legalization. While Bottoms has helped keep juvenile cannabis arrests off the books, and Rice has admitted to consuming cannabis, neither has made strong statements for legalization.
Tammy Duckworth, the senator from a legalized state, has been graded a “B” by NORML. She’s sponsored legislation to decriminalize cannabis and has supported her states’ legalization laws. But so far, she’s stopped short of calling for national legalization. New Mexico Gov. Michele Lujan Grisham has an “A” from NORML and has been serious about passing a recreational cannabis legalization law — calling it an “economic game changer” for her state.
Will The VP Support Legalization?
It’s clear that Biden could choose a VP with a similarly slowly progressive view as his — or he could pick someone who is already on record for big changes. If he chooses the latter, it can only increase the pressure on his campaign to edge their stance toward full legalization.
Asking, “Does Biden support legalization?” is perhaps the wrong question. The real question is: What will it take for Biden to support legalization? The answer is: a pro-cannabis VP, political pressure from his base, and a political need to bring in more voters. All of which could happen in 2020. Keep your fingers crossed.