In the early hours of Thursday morning, former Vice President Joe Biden confirmed that he would be running for president in the 2020 election. Following months of speculation as to whether or not he would run, at 6:00 a.m. EST, Biden finally formally entered the race by posting an ellipsis- and hyphen-riddled tweet announcing the inevitable.
The core values of this nation… our standing in the world… our very democracy…everything that has made America — America –is at stake. That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for President of the United States. #Joe2020 https://t.co/jzaQbyTEz3
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) April 25, 2019
Although Biden has long been positioned as the Democratic frontrunner of the 2020 election, his announcement was met with, if not surprise, a substantial amount of skepticism, with many on the left citing the inappropriate sexual conduct allegations against him as evidence that he should not run for president; others argued that the 76-year-old should make way for the younger, more left-leaning candidates who have already thrown their hats into the ring.
One group in particular has been vocal about its dissatisfaction with Biden as a candidate: marijuana legalization advocates. In a statement sent to Rolling Stone, Erik Altieri, the executive director of the marijuana reform organization NORML, criticized Biden for his “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,” Altieri said.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Michael Collins, the director of national affairs at Drug Policy Action, agreed with this perception of Biden, referring to him as “the architect, in all ways, of the war on drugs.” “He embraced the war on drugs. He seized every opportunity he had. He really leaned into escalating it,” he said. Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, characterized Biden as “one of the most aggressive drug warriors in Congress” who does not appear to have reversed or even softened his stance on marijuana, despite the majority of the Democratic candidates vocalizing their support for legalization. “He‘s very out of touch on this subject compared to other candidates,” Tvert told Rolling Stone. “Quite frankly, he seems to be a bit more out of step on this issue than President Trump,” who has said that he would sign legislation ensuring states have the right to determine whether or not to legalize marijuana.
Just a reminder that not only did Joe Biden support the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he also was a big part of the War on Drugs. #joe2020
— Jeff (@awinstoncupp) April 25, 2019
@JoeBiden I didnt see anything on your site about marijuana. Your administration had a chance to legalize it but didnt. What say you now?
— Lisa Mellers (@Flabbergast2017) April 25, 2019
Joe Biden is STILL anti-marijuana. He thinks it is a gateway to opiods. https://t.co/lnNgLkZ6Zj
— Lad Brady (@LadBrady) April 16, 2019
What has been Biden’s stance on legalization?
Literally for decades, Biden has asserted his opposition to marijuana legalization. As early as 1974, the then-31-year-old senator was making a case for his career-long brand as a dyed-in-the-wool centrist, claiming that “when it comes to abortion, amnesty and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother,” specifically citing his belief that he did not believe marijuana should be legalized. (Again, this was in 1974.) He has maintained this position throughout his career, though, voicing the long-debunked theory in 2010 that marijuana served as a “gateway drug” to other illicit substances. In 2014, he doubled down on this belief, firmly telling a Time magazine interviewer that he did not support marijuana legalization, though he did note that “the idea of focusing significant resources on interdicting or convicting people for smoking marijuana is a waste of our resources.”
Biden has also voiced his opposition to marijuana as a form of pain management. In 2007, he said that while he supported ending raids on medical marijuana users, he believed that “there’s got to be a better answer than marijuana. There’s got to be a better answer than that. There’s got to be a better way for a humane society to figure out how to deal with that problem.”
What role has Biden served in formulating drug policy?
Biden has long served as a fierce advocate of the so-called “War on Drugs,” playing an instrumental role in formulating anti-drug laws. In 1982, he campaigned for the creation of a central cabinet position — a “drug czar” — to oversee and coordinate various federal agencies’ efforts to fight drug trafficking, which led to the establishment of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1989. For the past few decades, the drug czar’s office advocated for increased enforcement of anti-drug laws, leading to more arrests; it also pushed a number of anti-drug (and, specifically, anti-marijuana) ad campaigns, which have contributed to “decades of misinformation about marijuana and misguided policies that have derailed countless people’s lives,” says Tvert. Such ad campaigns (which, among other things, claimed that smoking marijuana could lead to gun violence or teen pregnancy) have also been found to be not only ineffective, but also counterproductive: in fact, one eight-year ad campaign that cost the government more than $1.4 billion was found to increase the likelihood of young people smoking marijuana.
Throughout his career in the Senate, Biden has also consistently voted for increasingly draconian drug legislation. In addition to co-sponsoring a bill that ushered in sentencing disparities for crack versus cocaine users (essentially ensuring that low-income people of color who used crack would serve more jail time than middle-class white cocaine users), in 1996 Biden voted in support of a bill that would prohibit the drug czar’s office from using federal funds “for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in schedule I of … the Controlled Substances Act,” including marijuana; the bill also noted that the drug czar should “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of [such] a substance (in any form).” In other words, the bill dictated that the drug czar’s office should actively ignore any research that may surface in favor of the benefits of cannabis, on the grounds that such research could potentially be used to argue for cannabis legalization.
Biden’s approach toward drug policy has earned him a reputation as something of a drug warrior, which has been bolstered by the fact that he has criticized conservative politicians for not being tough enough on drugs. In 1989, for instance, Biden harshly criticized then-President George H.W. Bush’s anti-drug plan, claiming it was not “tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand” and advocating for increased incarceration and more law enforcement resources devoted to cracking down on drug dealers and users. This hard-line approach has likely contributed to Biden having a great deal of support among law enforcement officials, Tvert says: “he’s been very close to law enforcement and helped funnel a great deal of money to law enforcement efforts.”
Joe Biden complaining that one of the most racist and destructive mass incarceration efforts by Bush were too soft.
He also draws a line between cocaine users (white) and violent drug criminals… pic.twitter.com/QafpYAoHub
— rafael shimunov (@rafaelshimunov) April 25, 2019
What is Joe Biden’s stance on marijuana legalization now?
As of now, it’s a bit unclear: Biden has not issued many public statements on marijuana policy reform in the past few years, and as of his now his campaign website doesn’t make any specific reference to his current drug policy views. It does, however, make veiled references to drug policy reform by stating that Biden advocates for “reform[ing] the criminal justice system to prioritize prevention, eliminate racial disparities at every stage, get rid of sentencing practices 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.” (We reached out to Biden’s campaign for clarification, and will update if we hear back.)
To be fair to Biden, it seems he has reversed some of his hard-line drug policy stances: he has said he opposes mandatory minimum sentencing, and in 2007 he also introduced legislation meant to counteract the racial disparities in sentencing for crack versus cocaine possession (a law that, again, he was instrumental in ushering in). “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,” he said by way of an apology in a 2008 Senate hearing. But Collins says he views this show of remorse as disingenuous. “He was the man with the pen writing this legislation. He had the gavel. He set the agenda,” he said. “Some contrition is not gonna cut it. He needs to go beyond an apology and understand what he’s done for the past 20, 30 years has had a devastating impact on communities of color.”
We reached out to Biden’s camp to ask for clarification on his marijuana legalization stance, and will update if we hear back. But it’s also likely that, given the increasing cultural support for marijuana law reform in particular (according to one 2018 Gallup poll, nearly 66% of Americans support legalization), Biden will soften his views, in public if not in private. “I think he’s thinking, ‘this is something Democrats endorse and now I have to, and he will say something mealy-mouthed to get by’,” Collins says. Tvert believes that if Biden is to stand a chance against other Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (who have been vocal in their support of legalization), he’s going to have to publicly atone for his drug warrior past and soften his views on cannabis. “A lot of Democrats are looking forward and trying not to maintain someone with old failed policies and this is a perfect example,” he says, adding, “the folks [Biden] needs to energize are most likely the ones he thinks should be treated like criminals for using marijuana.”
This post has been updated with comment from Michael Collins, the director of national affairs at Drug Policy Action.