During the Democratic primaries, advocates of cannabis legalization widely believed Joe Biden to be the worst in the field when it came to pot policy, so it was a big deal when he finally came out for decriminalization.
His decision got applause, however, only because for most of his life he’d been a strong advocate of prohibition and, at times, a vociferous drug warrior. By the time of his “awakening,” the Democratic Party platform was calling for full legalization, but he thought that went too far.
Weighing in on the benefits of medical marijuana, he said there’s “got to be a better answer than marijuana,” and called for more “humane” treatments for pain. He didn’t explain what was inhumane about cannabis, nor did he say why there had to be a better answer. It’s easy to imagine that he was simply picturing hippies and street-corner ne’er-do-wells and thinking, “that ain’t me, man.”
His newly named running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Oakland), has had a similar, but more substantive change of heart.
As the San Francisco District Attorney and as the California Attorney General, she supported medical pot, but opposed full legalization, or at least treated the issue with skepticism. “Selling drugs hurts communities,” she said at one point.
Once she had her sights on winning national office, she got on board with removing pot’s Schedule 1 status, which puts it in the same legal category as heroin. It’s easy, and maybe even accurate, to call this politically motivated flip-flopping, or even hypocrisy. But another way to put it is that she listened to the public and changed her mind.
Either way, the elevation of Harris to the national ticket has elicited a collective sigh of relief from legalization advocates, largely because when she flipped, she flipped big.
A year ago, she introduced legislation to decriminalize weed: The MORE Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The MORE (Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement) Act languished in committee, but is now set for a September floor vote.
The bill would remove pot’s Schedule 1 designation and require the expungement of cannabis convictions from criminal records. It wouldn’t be full legalization, but it would remove many of the restrictions on the pot business, and it would likely serve as a stepping stone to ending federal prohibition entirely.
The chances of passage by the House look pretty good. Sadly, that’s not true of the Republican-controlled Senate, despite the fact that support in Congress for either legalization or decriminalization is bipartisan. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Banking Committee Chair Mike Crapo, of Idaho, have stymied cannabis legislation, including a proposed law that would have protected federally chartered banks from liability for doing business with cannabis companies.
A victory in the House, however, would be a huge milestone on the road to legalization, which most observers think is inevitable in the next few years, given growing public support as states get on-board one-by-one.
The question now is: assuming a Biden win, what happens when a bill to legalize comes to his desk for signature or veto? And what if it’s a bill sponsored by his vice president?
Just 10 years ago, Biden was still referring to pot as a “gateway drug.” This notion—that pot “leads” people to other, harder drugs, has long been debunked.
But last December, during a town-hall event in Las Vegas, Biden said "there’s not nearly been enough evidence” for him to decide whether pot is a “gateway drug” or not. “It’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally.”
Days later, he denied having said what he said. When confronted with his statement, he countered: “I said some say pot was a gateway drug,” adding flatly, “I don’t think it is a gateway drug. There’s no evidence I’ve seen to suggest that.”
So what would he do with a legalization bill? The odds are pick ’em.