With two-thirds of Americans fully behind marijuana legalization, many Democrats are wondering why their party’s presidential nominee still isn’t.
In the wake of the nationwide unrest over police brutality against black Americans and systemic racism, presumptive Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden recently unveiled his “Plan For Black America” in which he calls to “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.”
While that’s a massive sea change from where he was when the Democratic presidential primary got underway, when Biden was calling cannabis a “gateway drug,” it’s not good enough for many marijuana advocates, voters and Democratic elected officials.
“I would have preferred if he did a whole lot more,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) told The News Station.
While President Donald Trump is now Washington’s most famous prohibitionist, he took that mantle from Biden. Back when he was in the Senate, Biden chaired the Judiciary Committee where he helped usher through former President Bill Clinton’s 1994 tough on crime bill, which has left hundreds of thousands shackled in prisons for possession of substances like cannabis.
While advocates for outright legalization, including most all of his former presidential primary opponents, are glad the former vice president has evolved, they also wish he would have evolved further by now.
“If we’re serious about criminal justice reform, we should be legalizing marijuana,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose home state of Vermont legalized recreational use, told The News Station. “A number of states are moving in that direction. I think that’s the right thing to do.”
Other Democratic senators, especially those on the short list of potential vice-presidential nominees, don’t like being asked about how Biden’s new call to decriminalize cannabis falls far short of the majority of the party’s steady movement towards legalization.
“Let me go vote,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) told The News Station after being asked about Biden’s new stance.
But none of the elevators on the first floor of the Capitol that whisk lawmakers to the Senate floor were coming.
“You know where I’ve been on that position,” Harris offered as she appeared eager for any elevator to arrive.
Still, no elevators, so her escape was delayed.
“I think that it’s good that he is at that place of understanding that, at the very least, it should not be a criminal matter,” Harris said.
As she hopped onto her escape pod, Harris said she’s not planning to push Biden on cannabis.
“I’m going to just let him…” Harris said as an elevator’s doors finally rescued her from The News Station’s questions.
For other former Biden primary opponents, the debate is more nuanced.
“I want to go further than that, obviously, because I think it should be about restorative justice,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told The News Station.
Now that the primary is over, Booker’s working with Biden’s team. He says a President Biden would upend the federal prohibition that’s marked America for decades now.
“I’m confident that under a Biden administration, we will take strides in marijuana justice like we have never seen before in history,” Booker said. “I know he knows it’s unjust. I know he knows that this system is not fair, and I know he is committed to ideals of fairness and justice. So I think there’s a lot of space to work with him.”
Booker authored and has been a vocal advocate for the Marijuana Justice Act, which would invest money from legalization in the communities left blighted by the ‘war on drugs.’ Still, he defended Biden’s stance from critics (like himself, or at least his former presidential primary self).
“Decriminalization on the federal level, really what it means is delisting it, and so that is de facto legalization, because it allows states now not to have to worry about that,” Booker said. “So that’s a major step forward.”
But the distinction between decriminalization, which amounts to rescheduling cannabis, and outright legalization isn’t merely parsing words to advocates.
“Rescheduling is intellectually dishonest. Just as cannabis does not meet the strict criteria of a Schedule I controlled substance, it also does not meet the specific criteria [that] define schedules II through V,” according to a memo the marijuana advocacy group NORML passes out to elected officials.
The memo goes on to argue that cannabis users aren’t prone to the addiction associated with their cousins on the federal list of Controlled Substances, like OxyContin or Percocets – both of which are Schedule II narcotics, even as cannabis remains classified Schedule I.
NORML argues the others on the Controlled Substance list require a doctor’s prescription, which they say puts mere decriminalization at odds with the 11 states and the District of Columbia that regulate cannabis like alcohol. They also say just re-scheduling could continue to tie the hands of researchers, because cannabis faces regulations other controlled substances don’t, like the decades long mandate that required all federally approved marijuana research projects to get their cannabis crop from the University of Mississippi.
The rule wasn’t relaxed until 2019, but research continues to lag behind, even as millions of Americans legally consume marijuana. That’s why proponents say Biden’s reticence to embrace legalization is harmful not only to public health but also to how the criminal justice system views those incarcerated over marijuana possession.
Biden’s team sees it differently. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) was one of the co-chairs of Biden’s criminal justice reform task force that helped craft the candidate’s current platform. He was instrumental in forming bipartisan consensus on key parts of the First Step Act, which gave judges more leeway when sentencing drug felons. Trump signed it into law in 2018, which was seen as a massive bipartisan accomplishment for a bitterly divided Washington, even if critics say it didn’t go far enough. But Scott says purists are harping over nothing.
“If you go look at the document, there’s a profound change in direction for criminal justice – from a focus on lock them up and throw away the key, to prevention, early intervention and rehabilitation,” Scott told The News Station. “That’s a radical change, and if you want to fine tune it, you can certainly do that when a bill is introduced or executive action has taken place. But a platform document shows the direction we’re going.”
The chair of the powerful House Education and Labor Committee, who is also the first African-American sent to represent Virginia in Congress since Reconstruction, says Biden’s now fully behind the proposal his task force unveiled. Scott dismisses advocates and his fellow elected Democrats who are complaining Biden isn’t going far enough.
“He’s running ads saying, ‘decriminalize.’ Okay. I mean, can we move on to the next issue?” Scott said. “I mean, what? Some people just want to pick a fight and if that’s all – I can’t comment anymore than that.”
It’s not picking a fight for many advocates though, including many of Scott’s own colleagues.
“We’ve got to move and really address criminal legalization reform of cannabis,” Rep. Correa of California told The News Station.
Still, with Trump in the White House, even Biden’s Democratic critics aren’t complaining too loudly, even if they oppose his new, lukewarm position on marijuana.
“It’s a good start, and I’m happy that Biden is moving,” Correa said. “I don’t think it’s enough, but you know what, it’s a step in the right direction and I’ll take it.”