In a bid to win over still-skeptical progressives, Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled a set of policy proposals that moved him more closely aligned with his one-time rival, Bernie Sanders. But on the matter of marijuana, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee remains miles away from legalization.
The proposals were detailed in a lengthy document born out of a Biden-Sanders task force that tackled a number of policy issues—from criminal justice to climate change. According to the New York Times, Biden is “expected to adopt many of the recommendations.” The Times noted that some of the recommendations, such as economics and the environment, “include broader and costlier plans than [Biden] has championed so far in his campaign.”
But the Biden and Sanders camps remain at loggerheads over a number of areas, including cannabis policy. Sanders has long championed legalizing marijuana on the federal level, where it remains on the list of banned substances. In unveiling his own comprehensive plan on drug policy last fall, Sanders vowed to “legalize marijuana and end the horrifically destructive war on drugs,” which he said “has disproportionately targeted people of color and ruined the lives of millions of Americans.” Biden has steadfastly resisted legalization, a position he reiterated in a clumsy interview last month on “The Breakfast Club.”
Decriminalization Over Legalization
The policy paper released Wednesday by the Biden campaign falls well short of legalization, too, asserting instead that “Democrats will decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level,” while also saying they support the “legalization of medical marijuana.” On the matter of recreational legalization, however, the paper says only that “states should be able to make their own decisions,” which is more or less how marijuana policy has operated in the U.S. since 2012, when Colorado and Washington voters passed measures ending the prohibition in their states.
Marijuana is listed as a schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, a category that also includes heroin. As defined by the law, schedule I drugs have “ a high potential for abuse,” and “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S.”
The task force reportedly clashed heavily over marijuana. Politico reported that “Sanders’ team argued in private meetings that they should legalize cannabis, but that idea was rejected,” with one member of the task force telling the website that the disagreements over cannabis policy were “huge battles.” As Politico put it: the left “got rolled” on marijuana.
Briahna Joy Gray, who served as Sanders’ press secretary during the 2020 campaign, responded to that report on Wednesday with dismay. “Team Biden is demonstrating a mocking disrespect for voters— denying is even the bare minimum, even when it would help him win,” Gray said on Twitter. “There’s honestly no excuse for it.”
Marijuana advocates were also disappointed. NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said that the measures outlined by the task force, including the rescheduling of marijuana on the federal level, fell well short.
“It is impractical at best and disingenuous at worst for the Biden campaign to move ahead with these policy proposals,” said Altieri. “Rescheduling of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act would continue to make the federal government the primary dictators of cannabis policy, and would do little if anything to address its criminal status under federal law.”
Altieri continued: ““Rescheduling marijuana is intellectually dishonest. Just as cannabis does not meet the strict criteria of a Schedule I controlled substance, it similarly does not meet the specific criteria that define substances categorized in schedules II through V.”