Former Vice President Joe Biden has a long history as a drug warrior. While he's come a long way since the 1990s, Biden is still struggling to adjust to the modern reality of the Democratic Party.
But like the rusty weather vane that he is, Biden seems to be inching closer to the current consensus among Democrats, 78 percent of whom believe marijuana should be legalized. Yet even as he seeks the Democratic Party nomination for president, he remains unwilling to take the final step of supporting full legalization.
That internal struggle was on full display in an answer Biden gave during a campaign event in New Hampshire this week. The former vice president was confronted by a staffer from the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit that supports legalization, and asked to explain his position on legalization.
"It is at the point where it has to be, basically, legalized," Biden says in an audio recording obtained and published by Politico."But I'm not prepared to do it as long as there [are] serious medical people saying we should determine what other side effects would occur," Biden added, mentioning that he would have the Center for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health weigh-in.
Biden's stance on legalization has been a bit confusing during the early stages of the 2020 campaign. He accidentally tripped over some long-debunked drug war propaganda in November when he characterized marijuana as a "gateway drug" while talking to an Iowa audience. Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) took Biden to task for that comment during a subsequent debate, but even then Biden would not abandon his study-first-legalize-later approach. But he appears to have learned a lesson about messaging. In the audio clip published by Politico, Biden twice says he doesn't consider marijuana a gateway drug.
Officially, Biden's campaign says he would "decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions." Biden would also allow the states to decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. At the federal level, he would fully legalize marijuana for medical purposes and would ask Congress to reschedule cannabis so it would no longer be so difficult to study.
That's a set of positions that could be fairly accurately summed up as "basically legalized," as Biden put it in New Hampshire.
But it's not the same as actually legalized. And even though Biden has laid out a set of policies that would have been radical in any previous presidential election, he now seems to be lagging behind his fellow Democrats.
"Joe Biden has only recently evolved his position on marijuana policy," Violet Cavendish, communications manager for MPP, said via email. "He may hold a more progressive view on marijuana reform now than he has in the past, but his position still remains far behind nearly all of the other presidential candidates and it comes with a caveat: He's indicated that he won't move forward with legalization without scientific research to back his case."
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the only other Democratic candidate in the 2020 field who does not support ending marijuana prohibition. Like Biden, Bloomberg's stance has shifted just a bit. Last year, Bloomberg called legalizing weed "perhaps the stupidest thing we've ever done," but he's more recently said that "putting people in jail for marijuana" is "really dumb."