Former vice president Joe Biden has made clear in myriad ways that in the Democratic presidential nomination race for 2020, he plans to proudly fly the banner of an old-school dead-center candidate—not too far to the progressive left and not too far toward the conservative right.
However, on the question of cannabis it appears that the presidential hopeful is sharply out of step with the U.S. mainstream. Such was glaringly clear on Saturday when Biden stated that he would not be in favor of legalizing cannabis out of a fear that it could be a “gateway drug” leading users of the plant to harder drugs.
During a town hall in Las Vegas, Biden came out strongly against the federal legalization of cannabis, stating:
“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. I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it.”
The statement prompted groans and audible reactions of exasperation from the crowd as if the assembled participants in the town hall were collectively telling the 76-year-old politician: “OK, grandpa.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden holds a community event at Matt Kelly Elementary School in Las Vegas.
Posted by Fox News on Saturday, November 16, 2019
On the face of it, the assertion sounds more like something one would hear from 1980s “War on Drugs” propaganda like McGruff the Crime Dog than a well thought-out statement from a serious contender for the 2020 race.
Even Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), the former top cop in California, has come out in favor of legalization while claiming to have smoked it during her college years, and most Democratic competitors likewise support an end to prohibition. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has said that the “disastrous policies that make up the War on Drugs have not reduced drug use and violent crime.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has endorsed Sanders’ run, immediately tweeted:
“Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized.
These are matters of public health.”
Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized.
These are matters of public health.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 18, 2019
Federal law has classified marijuana as a Schedule I substance, with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) defining the plant as a drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” with other such examples including heroin and LSD. Rather than freeing the weed, Biden would instead make it a Schedule II drug so that it could be studied further.
Continuing in his typical meandering fashion, Biden said:
“I don’t know enough to know whether it is [a gateway drug] or not, although I’ve done a great deal of work on the drugs side of the issue.”
Biden’s statement also flies in the face of credible research on cannabis, which shows that use of the substance doesn’t lead users toward harder illicit substances.
In a blog post, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states in a report that while “some research suggests that marijuana use is likely to precede use of other licit and illicit substances and the development of addiction to other substances,” this doesn’t mean that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” NIDA then notes that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.”
Another study found that while cannabis does often precede people experimenting with or ingesting other drugs, this was largely due to “boredom”—which is a larger risk factor than recreational marijuana.
However, Biden feels that such research is insufficient. He told the town hall:
“It is not irrational to do more scientific investigation to determine, which we have not done significantly enough, whether or not there are any things that relate to whether it’s a gateway drug or not.”
Biden has long been a champion of anti-cannabis prohibition, including strong criminal penalties for possession included in the 1994 crime bill credited with feeding the rapid rise in mass incarceration and over-policing in poor communities of color. Biden later boasted that he played such a key role in passing the notorious bill that it should be called the “1994 Biden Crime Bill.”
According to recent data from the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of the public in the United States favor an end to the prohibition of cannabis.
The data puts Biden sharply at odds with the anti-prohibitionist mood of most Americans. However, as the Washington Post notes, he may well be in touch with “his peers in the silent generation, who, at 35 percent, have what may be one of the lowest percentages of support for marijuana legalization.”