Following Super Tuesday, there are now only two serious contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination: progressive Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and, in the lead, centrist former vice president and Delaware senator Joe Biden. For voters concerned with cannabis legalization, the choice may seem an obvious one. But neither candidate has an entirely clean record, and it is worth examining the details.
Sanders: Legalization by Executive Order?
Sanders released his plan for cannabis legalization last October, setting a goal of removing the plant from the Controlled Substances Act within his first 100 days after taking office. There was also a pledge of conviction expungement and provisions to keep Big Tobacco from colonizing the new industry.
The plank is on his website, under the prominent and forthright title, Legalizing Marijuana. Speaking at a rally outside Dallas on Feb. 14, Sanders upped the ante — essentially pledging day-one legalization by executive order.
“By executive order, I can and will legalize marijuana in every state in this country,” Sanders said, according to Newsweek. “We will expunge the records of those arrested for possession of marijuana.”
To cheers from the crowd, Sanders promised to “end the so-called War on Drugs” and mass incarceration. “It is not acceptable to me that we have more people in jail in America than any other country on earth including China, [with a population] four times our size.”
“We are going to end private prisons and detention centers,” he added. “Corporations should not be making millions of dollars in profit for locking up fellow Americans.”
While actually following through on his executive-order pledge is another matter (it could face challenge in the courts), Sander’s plan is about the most audacious pro-legalization position possible from an American presidential candidate.
Biden: From Audacity of Hope to Timidity of Dope
Biden’s stance is extremely timid by comparison to Sanders’s. The “audacity of hope” may have been the slogan of Biden’s ticket when he was Obama’s running mate 12 years ago, but his position on cannabis now displays precious little audacity.
Biden’s website includes no cannabis plank. And while he has come around to a pro-decriminalization position, he still opposes legalization.
This earned him some jibes at the candidates’ debate in Atlanta on Nov. 21, 2019. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) won guffaws from the crowd when he quipped of the ex-veep: “This week I heard him literally say ‘I don’t think we should legalize marijuana.’ I thought you might have been high when you said it.”
Booker cast the issue in terms of racial justice, adding: “Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people.”
As Politico noted after the debate, Biden supports moving cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule II — a less restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act. But Schedule II substances, including most opioids, are still very highly restricted.
Among the Democratic field, which was then much wider, Biden had the most conservative position on cannabis.
“Joe Biden’s platform lacks imagination,” Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Politico. “He’s competing against people who have single-handedly changed the conversation in Congress.”
Just three days before the November 2019 debate, Biden had tweeted about his stance on Marijuana Laws. The brief statement said “No one should be in jail for marijuana use.” But it only called to federally legalize medical marijuana and allow states to legalize “recreational” use. It also said he would “decriminalize recreational marijuana use and automatically expunge prior convictions, and “reschedule marijuana so researchers can study its health impacts.”
So even his cautious call to reschedule is couched in terms that smack of Reefer Madness.
‘Gateway’ Gaffe Haunts Biden
And Biden’s position wasn’t always even this progressive. He is still being dogged by his past comments on the cannabis question.
In 2010, when asked by ABC News‘s George Stephanopoulos about his views on cannabis, he responded: “I still believe it’s a gateway drug. I’ve spent a lot of my life as chairman of the [Senate] Judiciary Committee dealing with this. I think it would be a mistake to legalize. The punishment should fit the crime. But I think legalization is a mistake.”
When reminded of this comment at a public event in Las Vegas on Nov. 16, 2019, Biden stuck to his guns.
“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,” he said, according to The Hill. “It’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally. I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it.”
But two weeks later, and after the Atlanta debate, a Nevada Independent reporter called Biden for clarification on the question and he was quick to walk it back.
“I don’t think it is a gateway drug. There’s no evidence I’ve seen to suggest that,” Biden said. He actually denied that he said it was a gateway drug: “I said some say it’s a gateway drug.”
And while that is technically true of his comment in Vegas two weeks earlier, it is definitely not true of what he said in 2010.
This just came up again on March 3, when Biden sat down for an interview in South Carolina with the online news show, “The Shade Room.” He again tried to walk it all back.
“When you talk about marijuana, everybody says, ‘Biden says it’s a gateway drug,'” he said. “I don’t think it’s a gateway drug.”
He went on to add: “I think we should totally decriminalize the use of marijuana and possession of marijuana. Not only decriminalize it, but if you’ve ever been convicted of anything having to do with marijuana possession or use, your record is wiped clean… When you go for a job application and they say ‘have you ever been arrested or been in prison,’ you can legally say no. When I say wiped clean, I mean wiped clean.”
In the very next breath, however, he was adding caveats: “But this is where it gets confused. There are some scientists who say it may have an impact on mental health for some people. I don’t think we should criminalize it at all, but we should at least study it, since it makes a difference.”
Both Voted for Cannabis Death Penalty
The Shade Room also asked Biden about the crime bill that he helped write as a senator 25 years ago, which had also been assailed by Booker and other Democratic contenders as having contributed to mass incarceration. With dizzying cynicism, even President Donald Trump attacked Biden on Twitter for his involvement in crafting the law.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 earmarked billions for states to build new prisons, and to train and hire additional police. It expanded the federal death penalty and instated a federal “three-strikes” life sentence mandate.
In a little-noted measure, it also actually imposed the death penalty for dealing cannabis in very large quantities. Large-scale cannabis cultivators and traffickers — meaning at least 60,000 plants or kilos — can be sentenced to death under the Federal Death Penalty Act, which was an amendment to the 1994 crime bill. There has been some fear among state-legal big dispensary operators that Trump’s Justice Department could actually use this measure to send them to Death Row.
But why, you may ask, was it falling to Cory Booker and Kamala Harris to call out Biden on his support for the 1994 crime bill rather than to Sanders? Because the Vermont independent also voted for the law.
This was noted by Vox back in 2016, when then-candidate Hillary Clinton was being hounded by activists over her support for the bill signed into law by her husband. As Vox stated, “one thing that’s seldom noted — or only acknowledged as a footnote in stories about the 1994 law — is that Sanders, Clinton’s opponent in the Democratic primary, supported the 1994 crime law too. And while Clinton wasn’t in a position to vote for the bill as first lady, Sanders was in Congress and he did actually vote for it.
Sanders may look like the best bet for cannabis voters, but they’d be wise to temper their enthusiasm with a realistic sense of the compromises their man will have to make if he ever gets to the Oval Office — itself a daunting enough prospect.
TELL US, who do you support?