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Joe Biden’s Evolving Views On Drug Policy—Then Versus Now

Joe Biden has been a career politician for decades. Here’s how his stance on cannabis has shifted over the years.

Joe Biden's Evolving Views On Drug Policy—Then Versus Now
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Holding a publicly elected office for the better part of five decades might make you well-qualified for president. But as presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is finding out firsthand, it also makes it difficult to drastically change positions on an issue as critical to public life as drug policy.

We searched the extensive database of Biden’s statements on marijuana and drug policy beginning in the 1980s and compared it to more modern quotes. The differences are stunningly contrarian:

“We Must Take Back The Streets” vs “Mandatory treatment”

Then:

“We must take back the streets. It doesn’t matter whether or not the person that is accosting your son or daughter or my son or daughter, my wife, your husband, my mother, your parents…it doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth. It doesn’t matter whether or not they had no background…to become socialized into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society…the end result is they’re about to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife.”

November 18, 1993 – (source)

Now:

“We should make sure that we have no one going to jail for a drug offense, they go directly, mandatory prison. I mean, excuse me, mandatory treatment, not prison. And we fund it.”

February 7, 2020 – (source)

Context:

Biden’s “tough on crime” trope shows remarkably little care for the personal circumstances of offenders, using scare tactics you might see at a rally hosted by his 2020 opponent. In February’s New Hampshire debate, Biden’s former life as a drug enforcer seemed to bubble up in one of his well-known verbal gaffes, though he corrected himself by explaining he now believes drug offenders should be rehabilitated on the government’s dime.

“Every crime bill has had Joe Biden on it” vs “I am part of the problem”

Then:

“Every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the democratic senator from the state of Delaware, Joe Biden, on that bill.”

November 18, 1993 – (source)

Now:

“And so I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then…”

February 12, 2008 (source)

Context:

In the first quote, Biden touts himself as a living counter to the common post-Reagan belief that Democrats were weak on crime. 15 years later, he admits that his personal role in pushing those same harsh drug crime laws he once bragged about – here the 100:1 crack cocaine disparity – is a big reason the criminal justice system is so flawed today.

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“Not enough prison cells” vs “Reduce the number of people incarcerated”

Then:

“In a nutshell the president’s plan doesn’t include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, not enough prosecutors to convict them, not enough judges to sentence them, and not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”

September 5, 1989 – (source)

Now: 

“Today, too many people are incarcerated in the United States – and too many of them are African American…We can and must reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country while also reducing crime.”

From The Biden “Lift Every Voice” Plan – (source)

Context:

In a televised response to a speech from President George H. W. Bush about drug laws, Biden continues pushing the concept of “thugs” terrorizing the streets. He complains that Bush doesn’t go far enough or provide the government with the resources to lock up more Americans. His newly-released plan for Black America directly opposes that statement, calling for a reduction in incarceration. It also suggests federal savings from fewer prisoners be reinvested into “communities impacted by mass incarceration.” 

“No probation for crack” vs “End the crack and powder cocaine disparity”

Then:

“If you have a piece of crack cocaine no bigger than this quarter that I am holding in my hand…we passed a law through the leadership of Senator Thurmond and myself and others – we passed a law that said you go to jail for five years. You get no probation. You get nothing other than five years in jail. Judge doesn’t have a choice.” 

June 20, 1991 – (source)

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Now:

“He will end, once and for all, the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity.”

From The Biden “Lift Every Voice” Plan – (source)

Context:

While debating the Violent Crime Control Act of 1991 on the Senate floor, Biden used a physical prop to again boast about the strong drug sentencing laws he passed with Senator Strom Thurmond. You may recall Thurmond as the anti-integration Senator who was so committed to stopping the Civil Rights Act of 1957 with a filibuster that he dehydrated his body with steam baths so he could absorb fluids on the floor instead of using the bathroom. Biden doesn’t seem as proud of his work on the crack disparity laws these days, reiterating that it should be ended in his plan for Black America released in May 2020. 

“There has to be a better answer than marijuana” vs “I know a lot of weed smokers”

Then:

“There has 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.”

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May 12, 2007 – (source)

Now:

“Yeah, I do. I know a lot of weed smokers.”

May 22, 2020 – (source)

Context:

Thirteen years apart, Biden is asked about medical marijuana. His first answer, given at a private house party in New Hampshire, begins with him agreeing that federal raids against medical marijuana patients should end but stopping short of a full endorsement. Speaking to Charlamagne Tha God on The Breakfast Club last month, the former Vice President was asked about the decades of data and research studies on cannabis. His answer is something of a non sequitur that seems intended to show he still relates to marijuana users despite decades of opposing it on a policy level.

“Not enough evidence as to whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug” vs “I don’t think it’s a gateway drug”

Then:

“The truth of the matter is, there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug…it’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally.”

November 17, 2019 – (source)

Now:

“I don’t think it is a gateway drug. There’s no evidence I’ve seen to suggest that,”

November 25, 2019 – (source)

Context:

We admit, eight days isn’t much of a time difference. But this final comparison, which sees Biden do a complete 180, is illustrative of the broader point: Career politicians like Joe Biden have no issue changing their stances quickly and dramatically. It’s true that he’d be a better option for cannabis (and humanity) than the incumbent. But with over two-thirds of U.S. adults in support of legalization and the cannabis industry now providing more jobs than coal mining, we can only hope for one more Biden pivot – this time, fully away from his draconian drug stances of the ‘80s and ‘90s.     

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11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jerry b

    June 17, 2020 at 6:37 pm

    The bottom line here is , can the federal government or any state government even slow the ever expanding underground marijuana market. Apparently not, so why keep spending money fightIng this un winnable war, and giving all the money to the cartels and street dealers.

  2. Avatar

    Jeff

    June 17, 2020 at 7:27 pm

    I wish both of our candidates were more Pro legalize!!! I will vote for the one who will most likely stop incarcerating people for minor drug possession and no violence in there background. Another subject for me is the lobbyist and the for profit prisons.

    • Avatar

      Independent voter in CA

      June 18, 2020 at 1:16 am

      You’re a mark for either supporting Trump or Biden or any lesser evil bs narrative. I hope people still hit the streets protesting if Biden wins. This country can’t afford to go back to sleep when you got people hurting by the millions that the corporate Democrats & Republicans were responsible for having this country being dragged so far to the right. People who are hurting shouldn’t have to take it lying down & continue to wait. You saw that hitting the streets got more of a response than voting for down ballot candidates.

  3. Avatar

    Robert Fruzzetti

    June 17, 2020 at 9:21 pm

    If you want strict cannabis regulation, high taxes, low gains for cannabis (and HT) investors, less affect of cannabis legalization sparking major economic growth.. Then vote Biden. All I can say. You’d be crazy to vote for him.

    Trump would have it less regulated and taxed lower so that more people could afford it, and the legal market would be far more active.

  4. Avatar

    Theon

    June 18, 2020 at 3:51 am

    To hell with Biden. He may be a Democrat, but he sure as hell is conservative. Any supposed shift in his views about the war on drugs is solely for political appeal. We know cannabis will not be legalized until the government can regulate it. Whom, when, where and how.
    There is no better time than now to learn from the current civil rights movement and when organized. Protest nationally in mass numbers demanding legalization as a people’s choice. Not the corporations or politicians being directed by a private or personal interest.
    We don’t have to burn the mother fucker down, but let me know when it’s time to hit the streets to protest on a national/global level!
    Peace….

    • Avatar

      Wanda

      June 18, 2020 at 7:21 pm

      Am I the only one that has ever noticed the Joe Biden always looks stoned when he gets on stage that’s why he’s always looking down women’s shirts sick fucking pervert

  5. Avatar

    TJaxon

    June 18, 2020 at 3:52 am

    To hell with Biden. He may be a Democrat, but he sure as hell is conservative. Any supposed shift in his views about the war on drugs is solely for political appeal. We know cannabis will not be legalized until the government can regulate it. Whom, when, where and how.
    There is no better time than now to learn from the current civil rights movement and when organized. Protest nationally in mass numbers demanding legalization as a people’s choice. Not the corporations or politicians being directed by a private or personal interest.
    We don’t have to burn the mother fucker down, but let me know when it’s time to hit the streets to protest on a national/global level!
    Peace….

    • Avatar

      John Thomas

      June 18, 2020 at 3:33 pm

      Good post. – Are you the Tjaxon that used to post at the NYT Drug Policy Forum? If so, it’s great to see you! – Please drop by the Facebook page I have converted into a marijuana news/Progressive blog. https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002651451924

  6. Avatar

    Melonie Schutte

    June 18, 2020 at 5:54 am

    He’s a career politician. He’ll say whatever he has to to stay in office.

    • Avatar

      steve austin

      June 18, 2020 at 7:47 pm

      exactly

  7. Avatar

    No one

    June 25, 2020 at 11:55 am

    Wake up! Any vote not for Biden is a vote for trump. Do you really want four more years of his glorious supreme orangeness?

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