What a prospective candidate for the U.S. presidency thinks about cannabis has never before been what one might term a “dealbreaker.” However, in 2020, the need for a clearly defined plan when it comes to bridging the seismic gap between state-sanctioned cannabis sales and federal prohibition has become a focal point for Democratic Party voters.
To be sure, a range of extremely serious issues — encompassing everything from public healthcare reform to climate change — will await whoever is in the Oval Office come next February. And yet, the people have made it clear: they also want to do something about weed.
Now that former Vice President Joe Biden has emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, he’s at long last released a plan for how he’ll proceed should he win office in November. Published on May 4, the “Biden Plan for Black America” covers a range of issues, including marijuana. Advertising a platform of racial justice as his guiding principle, Biden’s plan would “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.”
Before moving any further, it’s important to understand the distinction in terminology being employed here.
While the “decriminalization” of cannabis would certainly be preferable to its current status as a Class I controlled substance, it would still be a far cry from full-out legalization. Though Biden’s plan for decriminalizing cannabis across the U.S. would do away with prison or jail time for possession, fees would still remain a viable punitive measure. Furthermore, decriminalizing cannabis is not a stepping stone to a federally-sanctioned recreational market (the true holy grail for advocates and capitalists alike).
In short, Biden’s vision for cannabis reads like the marijuana policy of someone who has been forced to concede the absolute minimum. Will that really be enough?
Polling data indicates that American voters do indeed favor cannabis reform in almost overwhelming numbers. According to a Gallup survey published in October of last year, 51% percent of Republicans were in favor of making marijuana legal. For Democrats, the figure jumps to 78%. If 78% of your party base wants something to be legal, it’s probably wise to take that demand seriously.
Unfortunately, it appears that Biden is content to split the difference. While other Democratic nominee hopefuls like Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris all prioritized cannabis reform as a policy in their bids for office, Biden’s stance on the matter has been far more difficult to pin down.
Last week, he appeared on the radio program “The Breakfast Club,” where Biden told host Charlamagne tha God that part of his hesitancy to legalize is inspired by weed smokers he “personally” knows. In contrast, one-time Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders pledged to legalize cannabis across the U.S. during his first day on the job. Booker also provided a comprehensive plan building on his support of the Marijuana Justice Act (currently awaiting consideration in Congress).
Trying to ascertain where Republican nominee Donald Trump will stand on the matter is akin to reading tea leaves. He recently appointed Tim Shea to be the new acting administrator for the DEA, marking the DEA’s fourth change in the role in only five years. No one expects Trump to make cannabis a big part of his re-election playbook, but 2020 has not been a kind year for expectations of any variety.
For years, Biden has taken a beating from policy groups like NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance owing to his own voting record as a senator. Over a tenure that lasted nearly four decades, Biden’s involvement with infamously aggressive anti-drug laws has understandably left some unconvinced that the 77-year-old has now finally changed his tune.
With so many different factors to consider, it’s quite difficult to know just how hard Biden may be pressed to reshape his stance on cannabis in the months ahead. Certainly, his choice of a running mate may play a decisive factor, though forcing the nominee for Vice President to do the heavy lifting on cannabis reform is also not the collectively desired outcome from an industry perspective.
Should Biden be willing to ratchet-up his aggressiveness when it comes to marijuana reform, it may prove to be a bigger factor than anyone is yet prepared to admit. The data is there — people want legal cannabis in America — so why not do what every good politician is taught and give the people what they want?