“Nobody should be in jail for smoking marijuana.” That’s what former US Vice President Joe Biden told voters in Nashua, New Hampshire on Tuesday. But Biden, one of more than 20 contenders for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination, said he does not support making cannabis legal. Instead, Biden favors decriminalization, not legalization. But the former VP and 2020 hopeful still thinks states should be able to make their own decisions when it comes to legalization, without federal interference. Biden also believes the federal government should support medical cannabis research and make it easier for people to expunge criminal records for some cannabis-related offenses.
As a Senator, Biden Helped Wage the War on Weed
On March 16, ahead of his officially announcing his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Joe Biden said, “I have the most progressive record of anybody running for the nomination.”
But even a cursory look at Biden’s record reveals that’s not the case, especially when it comes to drug policy. As a Senator, Biden was a militant in the war on drugs. He helped passed bills that eliminated parole, authorized civil asset forfeiture and imposed harsh mandatory minimums for drug possession. He introduced the racist sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, helped pass dozens of new death penalties and directed massive amounts of public resources to building new prisons and arresting people to fill them.
Indeed, during his decades in the Senate, Biden bragged constantly about his central role in drug and criminal legal policies that devastated black communities. And even setting that record aside, Biden today still isn’t anywhere near the most progressive candidate when it comes to marijuana policy.
Marijuana Legalization a Key Issue Among 2020 Democratic Contenders
The dividing line between decriminalizing marijuana and legalizing is splitting the field of 2020 Democratic candidates. And Joe Biden isn’t on the legalization side. But Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Cory Booker do support legalization, along with several other contenders. On the other side stands Biden, who along with Sen. Sherrod Brown and John Hickenlooper, favor support criminalization, not legalization.
In other words, among the Democratic field, legalization is winning out over decriminalization. But Biden isn’t hopping on board.
However, speaking before New Hampshire voters, Biden outlined what federal marijuana policy might look like under his administration. Biden “would allow states to continue to make their own choices regarding legalization and would seek to make it easier to conduct research on marijuana’s positive and negative health impacts by rescheduling it as a schedule 2 drug,” Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates told CNN.
Furthermore, Biden doesn’t think anyone should be behind bars for simply consuming or possessing marijuana—at least not anymore. But Biden did not specify whether decriminalization would apply to private growers or those who sell or distribute marijuana.
Candidate Biden also supports automatically expunging prior criminal records for marijuana possession. Automatic expungement means those with criminal records for marijuana don’t need to file a petition and/or pay for a lawyer to clear their conviction.
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