We can finally say that we officially have a new president in the Oval Office. Many hope that President Joe Biden will usher in a utopian era of progressive pot law reform that fell into limbo when former President Donald Trump took office. Is it wishful thinking?
Cannabis policy reform ground to a halt under the Trump administration, but it never quite reversed—despite close calls like the appointment of Jeff Sessions to the role of attorney general and Trump’s assertion that weed lowers IQ.
Trump promised to leave the matter of cannabis policy enforcement up to the states, and he actually managed to keep that promise. At times he even signaled that there would be positive changes made at the federal level, although those changes never came close to actually manifesting.
The reason Trump never took a hard stance against pot, even though he almost certainly dislikes it personally, is that he was never a Republican in the strictest sense; he was actually a right-wing populist. And while Republicans historically hate the idea of legalizing cannabis, right-wing populist groups like libertarian capitalists usually support legalization (since anti-drug laws are considered government overreach).
This ultimately brought us an administration that was pleasantly neutral about cannabis legality and a president who was too afraid to voice his archaic opinions on the matter for fear of losing his voter base—not the worst spot to be in when you consider previous decades under an explicit War on Some Drugs. Even our time under former President Barack Obama—who also generally let the states handle their own business—was blighted by the kicking in of a few dispensary doors.
But many have been hoping that the return of a Democrat to the White House in a time of bipartisan populist support for legalization will result in much more progressive reforms being enacted.
Biden’s history with cannabis makes that dream seem unlikely, though. Until very recently he was not only against cannabis legalization and decriminalization, he used his time as a lawmaker to introduce numerous bills that were meant to make the penalties of drug laws even harsher and make regulations against drugs even tighter.
In 1986 Biden introduced the unsuccessful Comprehensive Narcotics Control Act, which would have established the cabinet position of “drug czar” (a notion which saw realization under the Obama administration), expanded the Justice Department’s authority to seize assets involved in drug cases (a practice that flourished during the Obama era) and impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Luckily, it didn’t pass.
The Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986, co-sponsored by Biden, notably introduced different penalty sentences for possession of cocaine and possession of crack, even though the two substances are nearly identical. The law made sentences for possession of crack 100 times worse than those for possessing pure cocaine. This policy helped lock up an inordinate number of Black men in the ’90s for the simple reason that crack was predominantly used in Black communities.
He also famously co-authored the draconian Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—known as the 1994 crime law—the infamously “tough on crime” law that brought on more mandatory minimum sentences than ever before.
As has been pointed out before in many places, the policies enacted by that law and proudly owned by Biden fully capitalized on the incarceration of people of color. When cannabis advocates discuss the need for equity in legalization laws to address prohibition’s negative effect on communities of color, they are referring to policies that Biden played a central role in designing.
It wasn’t until his 2019 primary run—following harsh criticism for his ’80s-style assertion that marijuana was a “gateway drug”—that Biden reluctantly softened his position and said he’d support decriminalization.
All of this sounds just plain awful, but there is a sliver lining. No matter what Biden may feel personally about cannabis, his constituents and supporters clearly support more progressive views of the drug. As anyone who has spent time watching politics knows, the president—the leader of the Free World, mind you—has little power in the face of Congress. And all signs point to a pro-cannabis Congress—possibly for the first time ever.
Senate majority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) loudly supports comprehensive cannabis law reform and legalization, and he has said that a Democratic-run legislature would make legalizing cannabis at the federal level a priority.
Recently, Schumer and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) vowed to introduce legislation immediately. In a joint statement, they wrote:
“We are committed to working together to put forward and advance comprehensive cannabis reform legislation that will not only turn the page on this sad chapter in American history, but also undo the devastating consequences of these discriminatory policies. The Senate will make consideration of these reforms a priority.
“In the early part of this year, we will release a unified discussion draft on comprehensive reform to ensure restorative justice, protect public health and implement responsible taxes and regulations. Getting input from stakeholder groups will be an important part of developing this critical legislation.”
Meaning: We’ll likely see some positive advances this year, in spite of our president.