Former Vice President Joe Biden has confirmed his third run for the White House in an announcement made at the end of April.
After months of speculation and in the wake of multiple allegations of inappropriate contact with women, the former Delaware senator now joins a crowded field of Democrat candidates who are largely united in their support of federal-level marijuana reform.
Biden, meanwhile, has for decades been one of the most draconian members of the Democratic party when it comes to drug policy.
He served as chair of the influential Judiciary Committee during the Clinton administration, which authored and pushed legislation that expanded the U.S. government’s War on Drugs, famously through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (widely known as the 1994 Crime Bill).
The 1994 Crime Bill enhanced racial inequalities in law enforcement through, for example, sentencing disparities for crack versus powder cocaine, expanded the federal government’s use of the death penalty, and included a federal three strikes law. Further, the Crime Bill increased drug testing as a condition of probation or parole and restricted opportunities for federal inmates to move on with their lives.
Biden has often defended his role in crafting the harsh criminal justice system that emerged in the 1990s, saying in a 2016 interview with CNBC that he did not regret promoting the 1994 Crime Bill.
“When you take a look at the crime bill, of the money in the crime bill, the vast majority went to reducing sentences, diverting people from going to jail for drug offenses into—what I came up with it—drug courts, providing for boot camps instead of sending people to prison so you didn’t relearn whatever the bad thing that got you there in the first place,” he said. “We had enormous success.”
More recently though, as he considered his new run for the White House, he accepted that sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine “trapped an entire generation” and stated that the legislation “was a big mistake when it was made.”
“I haven’t always been right,” he said. “I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried.”
As vice president to Barack Obama, Biden was charged with overseeing matters of criminal justice from the White House. His record here is more mixed. The Obama administration brought in the Cole memo, which ensured that state-legal marijuana businesses could operate largely free from federal intervention. But it was also under Obama and Biden’s watch that loud calls for the rescheduling of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) were rejected.
This fits with Biden’s long-standing view on marijuana’s criminal status. In 1974, he wrote a piece for the Washingtonian where he stated, “I don’t think marijuana should be legalized.”
“I still believe [marijuana] is a gateway drug”
Fast-forward to 2010 and the then-vice president said, “I still believe it’s a gateway drug. I’ve spent a lot of my life as chairman of the Judiciary Committee dealing with this. I think it would be a mistake to legalize.”
While Biden has acknowledged and attempted to address some of the long-term harms of certain pieces of legislation he supported, a close look at his record and statements reveals a view on drug policy that has remained largely consistent over the years. Namely, that drugs should be illegal across the board, that the criminal justice system is best equipped to deal with drug users, and that regulating marijuana is a bad idea.
So what could we expect from a Biden presidency with regards to marijuana policy? Unlike most other Democrat candidates, his 2020 campaign website contains no specific cannabis reform measures.
Rather, a Biden presidency would “reform the criminal justice system to prioritize prevention, eliminate racial disparities that don’t fit the crime, and help make sure formerly incarcerated individuals who have served their sentences are able to fully participate in our democracy and economy.”
When sharing a stage with the other candidates, it will be interesting to see if Biden doubles down on his opposition to marijuana reform and embrace what sets him apart from the crowd. Or will this make him appear too out of touch with a rapidly forming consensus in Democrat as well as Republican circles that federal-level reform of marijuana policy is long overdue.
In either case, if we go on his record in public office and public pronouncements, it is reasonable to suggest that a Biden presidency would not be one championing marijuana reform.