Like Hillary Clinton, who lost to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, former vice president Joe Biden is way behind the national curve on cannabis.
Biden is currently battling Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg for the lead in the race to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in July.
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."
Biden Retracts Gateway Theory Statement
Nine days later, Biden was no longer so firm on marijuana leading to hard drugs like heroin and cocaine, telling reporters:
"I don't think it is a gateway drug. There's no evidence I've seen to suggest that."
But he continued to contend that "some in the medical community" believe marijuana needs more research before it can be legalized federally.
Biden Wants to the See the Science on Cannabis
In an interview with the New York Times on January 15, Biden tripled down on his science and reserach argument. Here's how it went:
Times: You’ve called for rescheduling marijuana so that scientists can better study its therapeutic potential. Virtually all of your opponents have gone further and actually called for full legalization at the federal level.
Biden: They have.
Times: That’s something that most people support in both parties and across most demographics agreed on. Can you make the case to me for why to take the more moderate approach when it seems...
Biden: Because I think science matters. I mean one of the reasons I’m running against the guy I’m running against is science matters, not fiction. Now nobody says, I’m not arguing, and Senator Booker acknowledged, I wasn’t arguing that we should in fact, it was a gateway drug.
Times: What I’m arguing is there have been studies showing that it complicates other problems if you already have a problem with certain drugs.
Biden: So we should just study it and decriminalize it, but study it and find out. Get the medical community to come up with a final definitive answer as to whether or not it does cause it. If it does cause other problems, then make it clear to people. So that’s a place you don’t not engage in the use of it.
Times: But so many states have already legalized it.
Biden: Sure they have. I get that, but that doesn’t mean the science shouldn’t be looked at.
Times: Couldn’t you look at the science and legalize it at the federal level in tandem?
Biden: No. Why would you promote the science if the science would say it’d be a bad idea to legalize it? You’ve got to find out the facts first.
Now Biden Says Marijuana Should "Be, Basically, Legalized"
In a rambling answer to a question from MPP's Don Murphy at a campaign event in New Hampshire on February 6, Biden said, "I think it is at the point where it has to be, basically, legalized."
Biden began his answer saying, "FIrst of all we should decriminalize marijuana. I've pushing that for a while, period. No. 2, medical marijiuana should be approved. No. 3, anyone convicted of a marijuana offense, in the past, present or future, has their record wiped clean... Medical people say we should study it more to make sure there aren't other effects. It's not a gateway drug. I think science matters. I would have the NIH and the CBD looking at it. But I think it is at the point where it has to be, basically, legalized. But I'm not prepared to do it as long as serious medical people are saying we should determine what other side effects do occur. Not moving the other drug, but what it complete."
Listen to the recording here.
Drilling Down a Little Deeper
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.
This article was original posted on November 18 and was updated on January 17 and February 6.