Joe Biden has not learned from Hillary Clinton's mistakes. Like Clinton, who lost to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, the former vice president remains behind the national curve on cannabis.
At a town hall in Las Vegas on November 16, Biden doubled down on his moderate marijuana views, wondering whether pot is a gateway drug and calling for rescheduling into a class 3 designation.
It all started when a smart audience member asked, "Has your stance on recreational changed?"
Cue to 11:00 below
As expected, Biden wandered all over the place:
• "No, it hasn't changed. Look, I think states should be able to make a judgement to legalize marijuana. I think that's OK, but let me tell you, the truth of the matter is there has not been nearly enough evidence acquired as to whether or not it's gateway drug. There's a debate. Before I legalize it nationally I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it. That's why I want to move it from a Schedule 2 drug - uh, a Schedule 1 drug to a Schedule 3 so you can, in fact, do this."
"It is not irrational to do more scientific investigation to determine, which we have not done significantly enough, whether or not there are any thing that relate to whether it's a gateway drug or not."
• "I support use of medical marijuana, but here's the deal: Ladies and gentlemen, anyone who's been convicted, um, it should not be a crime. It should be to the extent that it exists for anyone who has ever been convicted of marijuana and put in jail, they should be immediately released, their record should immediately be expunged. And, and, here's the deal: 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. I don't know enough to know whether it is. Although I've done a great deal of work on the drug side of this issue."
"Nationally I'm not prepared to push for the legalization. Medical marijuana, yes. But the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in fact is one I need more data to make that judgement."
• "So, it should not be a crime. It should be a civil penalty to the extent that it exists in states that don't choose to legalize. And nationally I'm not prepared to push for the legalization. Medical marijuana, yes. But the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in fact is one I need more data to make that judgement. But no one should go to jail for it, period."
Analysis: Reading Between the Lines
Here's the deal: Biden shouldn't have invoked the gateway theory. It's one of the oldest anti-marijuana tropes in the books. The "theory," christened by Denise Kandel in 1975, is that marijuana use leads to hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. Drug warriors have used this gambit as one of the more convenient and specious arguments against legalization for decades. It has largely been debunked.
Pro-cannabis and criminal justice organizations don't like Biden in the first place because of his role in the War on Drugs and support for crime-bill legislation in the '80s and '90s that packed prisons with non-violent offenders (mostly people of color). Biden essentially favors decriminalization of adult use. In his world, research stills needs to be done to determine if people should continue to be arrested for marijuana because of its perceived harms.
In 2019, with the progressive movement led by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren influencing Democratic Party politics, this is no longer good enough. It wasn't in 2016, and certainly is not in 2020.
Guess what? If Biden wins the party's nomination, he will receive lukewarm support at best from marijuana and criminal justice reformers, just like Hillary Clinton did. That's not a recipe to defeat Donald Trump.