Former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s views on cannabis appear to be evolving. During a conference call with reporters Monday, Biden reversed his previous stance that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” Biden told reporters that he hasn’t seen evidence to support the gateway drug theory about cannabis. But only a week prior, during a Las Vegas town hall, Biden said the exact opposite. In front of the town hall crowd, Biden said there was not enough evidence to know whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug. Now, in the face of public blowback and criticism of his remarks, Biden said he was only telling the audience what “some say” about cannabis.
Despite New Stance, Joe Biden Isn’t Revising His Cannabis Platform
Among the crowded field of Democratic candidates, Biden’s views on cannabis reform have been among the most conservative. While front-runners like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have called for nationwide adult-use legalization as part of a plan to dismantle the war on drugs, decarcerate people for drug-related offenses and expunge prior criminal records, Biden has situated his campaign’s platform at the back of the pack.
Still, Biden does support some major cannabis policy shifts. He has said he believes the federal government should decriminalize cannabis use and simple possession. And he has backed a plan to expunge criminal records of minor cannabis offenses. These policies would make a major difference for many people whose lives have been disrupted by an encounter with the justice system over weed. But they fall far short of more progressive policies like federal legalization and amnesty for those currently behind bars for marijuana-related convictions.
Despite Biden’s support for decriminalization and expungement, however, Biden’s public statements aren’t making voters confident that he’s the right person to lead a major national policy shift on cannabis. And his recent “gateway drug” comments are a case in point.
When asked why he doesn’t support broader measures like full legalization, Biden routinely resorts to the argument that there isn’t enough evidence or research to support such a move. But the candidate’s retrograde comments on cannabis reveal that he’s not very familiar with the latest evidence and research supporting legalization.
Out of date on the science and apparently out of touch with contemporary public views on cannabis, Biden has faced a week of criticism after his “gateway drug” statements at a Las Vegas town hall. Now, Biden is trying to control the damage from those statements by attributing them to an anonymous “some say.”
Can Joe Biden Overcome His Terrible Record on Drugs?
Even if Joe Biden reversed course on his gateway drug comments, his new stance isn’t going to revise the former vice president’s campaign platform. Biden still won’t support federal legalization. But his closest rivals for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, do.
And it’s not just Biden’s current out-of-step statements about cannabis that voters should worry about. As a Senator, Biden was one of the principal architects of the policies that have fueled mass incarceration and racial disparities across the criminal legal spectrum. For decades, Biden stood sharply opposed to decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. As former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden bears the brunt of the responsibility for passing a packet of drug laws that kick-started the modern war on drugs. He once even tried to pass a bill that would have criminalized raves, called the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act.
And despite today’s growing public consensus and mounting evidence that federal legalization makes sense from a social justice perspective, an economic perspective, a criminal legal perspective, and a medical perspective, Biden still claims there isn’t enough evidence to support broad, ambitious marijuana policy.