Grading the Democratic Presidential Candidates on Marijuana: Joe Biden

joe biden marijuana cannabisEvery Saturday, at least for a while, we plan to run a series of blog posts that take a close look at each of the Democratic Party candidates for President in 2020. We will examine each candidate’s historic approach to marijuana law and policy, and also canvas each politician’s current stances on marijuana.

Today, we start with Joe Biden, the former vice president and U.S. senator from Delaware. As of today’s post, Biden may still be the current party front-runner, and is certainly near the top of the heap.

Overall Grade: D

Stance on marijuana: Biden wants to decriminalize marijuana use and automatically expunge prior criminal records showing marijuana possession convictions. He is, however, far from an advocate for cannabis legalization. Biden’s campaign website nowhere even addresses his beliefs on cannabis. Instead, it makes a vague statement about criminal justice reform that nowhere mentions the War on Drugs or marijuana:

We need to reform 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….”

His failure to mention the War on Drugs or marijuana on his website despite using “criminal justice reform” as a policy point is presumably because he zealously supported the War on Drugs, as described below. If Biden truly believes “Nobody should be in jail for smoking marijuana,” as he told voters this past March, he owes an explanation for why he previously supported the arrest and incarceration of countless Americans for weed.

History with marijuana legislation: Biden’s failure to mention marijuana on his website is probably intentional. Over the course of his political career, Biden has expressed his disdain for marijuana, with both his rhetoric and his legislation. The former vice president is described as an architect of the War on Drugs by Michael Collins, the director of national affairs at Drug Policy Action. As a senator, Biden was largely responsible for creating the “drug czar” in 1982, a cabinet position that would go on to form the Office of National Drug Control Policy and increase enforcement of anti-drug laws. Biden consistently pushed for stepping up enforcement of draconian drug policies, even criticizing then-President George H.W. Bush for being too soft on drugs.

As vice president, Biden’s position on marijuana seemed more subdued as major drug policy changes were enacted under the Obama administration, including the Cole memo which made it easier for states to legalize marijuana. However, the Obama administration deflected all attempts to reschedule marijuana, leaving it classified as a Schedule I drug, the same schedule as heroin.

As the Democratic Party’s platform increasingly becomes pro-legalization, Biden continues to oppose the legalization of marijuana, even for medical use:

We have not devoted nearly enough science or time to deal with the pain management and chronic pain management that exists. 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.”

Biden gets one thing right: we do need more research surrounding pain management. However, his refusal to acknowledge the viability of cannabis as a possible treatment exposes his basic misunderstanding of both marijuana and the drugs currently used to manage pain. Though extensive research is necessary to determine the efficacy of marijuana for specific maladies, there is little doubt that it has tremendous potential for reducing the U.S.’s ongoing opioid epidemic, among other things. Considering the existing scientific evidence, Biden’s perspective that marijuana is somehow “inhumane,” and thus not to even be considered as a treatment for pain, is simply illogical. His opinion stems more from prejudice against cannabis (and the people who use it) than from science.

Conclusion: Biden receives a “D” grade for his views on cannabis because he both fails to recognize or acknowledge its medicinal uses and because he is the only prominent Democratic Party presidential candidate who does not support cannabis legalization. The only thing Biden has going for him is a stated desire for criminal justice reform, which saves him from a failing grade.