A congresswoman who’s reportedly being considered as a vice presidential pick for Joe Biden said on Thursday that she doesn’t feel the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee needs to back marijuana legalization despite widespread calls from advocates and majority support among voters.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), who herself has cosponsored federal legalization legislation and other reform bills, was asked about Biden’s position during an interview with members of the Sacramento Press Club. She responded that “I don’t necessarily think that he should” embrace adult-use legalization, though she personally feels that certain federal cannabis policies should change.
“What I do think the federal government should do is stay out of the states,” she said. “In other words, where states have legalized it, I don’t think the federal government should supersede that a couple.”
Watch Bass discuss Biden and marijuana policy, starting around 5:50 into the video below:
The congresswoman also stressed that Congress should approve legislation protecting banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses and also promote research into cannabis, which she argued is not “a panacea.”
“I think you can have problems with marijuana and I don’t like the way it is just put out there as though there’s no problems at all,” she said, adding that racial disparities in cannabis arrests persist in states after they legalize—an argument commonly raised by proponents of maintaining prohibition.
“I think that part of the legalization movement is selling something that I don’t believe is accurate to communities of color, that the reason why we need to legalize it is to address the disproportionate arrest and incarceration rate,” Bass said. “Now I’m happy to say I’m wrong—within a few years, if data proves me wrong—but I’m suspicious of that.”
Recent data from the ACLU does seem to contradict the sentiment that the legalization movement is being misleading with racial justice arguments. While a study of police data by the group found that some racial disparities remain in legal states, arrests in those jurisdictions are sharply down overall and disparate enforcement is significantly more intense in states that have only decriminalized possession or where cannabis remains illegal compared to those that have enacted full legalization.
While the comments from the Democratic congresswoman might seem surprising given that Bass has signed on to a legislation to federally deschedule cannabis and a resolution condemning the racial injustice of the broader drug war, she hasn’t been historically consistent on the issue. For example, she previously voted against an amendment to protect all legal marijuana states from Justice Department interference before switching to a “yes” vote last year.
Curiously, after voting in favor of a more modest amendment to protect only medical cannabis states from federal interference in 2012, she voted against the same measure in subsequent votes in 2014 and 2015.
That said, she also chaired a historic Judiciary subcommittee hearing last year on ending federal marijuana prohibition, stating at the time that the “war on drugs was racially biased from its inception and has been carried out in a discriminatory fashion with disastrous consequences for hundreds of thousands of people of color and their communities.”
In any case, if Bass is ultimately selected as Biden’s running mate, it appears clear she likely won’t be pushing for him to adopt a pro-legalization stance. Advocates hoped a criminal justice reform task force organized by Biden and former primary campaign rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would recommend the broad policy change, but that didn’t pan out.
As it stands, Biden, who during his decades as a senator championed punitive drug legislation, has so far drawn the line at decriminalizing cannabis possession, federal rescheduling, medical marijuana legalization, expungements and allowing states to set their own policies.
NORML circulated a petition this week that calls on Biden and President Trump to support legalization and several other social equity proposals ahead of the November election.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.