In a recent speech, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden reaffirmed his position that people convicted of low-level drug offenses should be forced into rehabilitation in order to stay out of jail and get their records cleared.
While the former vice president seems to view the policy as a progressive alternative to incarceration, many drug reform advocates feel mandatory treatment reinforces misconceptions about substance misuse, and they point out that the efficacy of forced rehabilitation programs are scientifically questionable.
“Anybody who gets convicted of a drug crime—not one that is in terms of massive selling, but consumption—they shouldn’t go to prison. They should go to mandatory rehabilitation,” Biden said at a campaign event in Kenosha, Wisconsin last week. “Instead of building more prisons, as I’ve been proposing for some time, we build rehabilitation centers.”
“Mandatory. They’ve got to go to mandatory rehab, but it’s not part of the record when they get out if they finish it,” he said, adding that having a criminal record often prevents people from obtaining housing, financial aid for school and other public benefits.
It’s not clear whether Biden feels that people with low-level marijuana convictions should similarly be subject to mandatory rehabilitation. He’s proposed decriminalizing cannabis possession, but theoretically the rehab policy could fit within the framework he’s envisioning for a decriminalization policy that stops short of full legalization, which he opposes. Marijuana Moment reached out to his campaign for clarification, but a representative did not immediately respond.
In any case, mandatory rehabilitation is not the policy of choice for most drug reform advocates.
“Coerced treatment will inevitably result in forcing people who do not have substance use disorders or who would naturally recover into services,” Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at Drug Policy Action, told Marijuana Moment in response to Biden’s comments. “The overwhelming majority of people who use drugs do not develop a substance use disorder. Of those that do, most recover without participating in any formalized treatment or recovery services.”
“Additionally, mandatory treatment can have a net-widening effect, continuing to trap people under an alternative form of state surveillance,” she said. “Instead we must expand access to substance use disorder treatment and other support services that are attractive and affordable to increase voluntary treatment where appropriate. Biden’s proposal would merely waste resources that could be used for people who actually want and could benefit from treatment.”
Biden just said he’d push for mandatory rehab for drug possession, with the charge cleared if you complete the program. This isn’t reform. Possession does not mean addiction.
— Radley Balko (@radleybalko) September 3, 2020
This isn’t the only policy where Biden and drug reform advocates don’t see eye-to-eye. The nominee remains opposed to marijuana legalization despite supermajority support among voters. Instead, he supports decriminalizing cannabis possession, legalizing medical marijuana, expunging prior convictions and letting states set their own policies.
A senior adviser to Biden also said recently that his administration would pursue decriminalization and automatic expungements for prior marijuana convictions if he is elected.
Biden’s vice presidential running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) similarly raised eyebrows in drug policy circles in a recent interview, lamenting racial disparities in cannabis enforcement without acknowledging her own record as a prosecutor who oversaw thousands of marijuana cases. Despite her past efforts to campaign against marijuana legalization in California as a candidate for state attorney general, she’s now the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally legalize cannabis. But despite her newfound support, Harris has indicated that she won’t be proactively pushing Biden to adopt a pro-legalization stance.
Earlier this year, Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) established a criminal justice task force that issued various recommendations on policies they feel should be adopted. Advocates hoped the panel would push the former vice president to back legalization, but that didn’t materialize.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) platform committee rejected an amendment to make legalization a 2020 party plank. Some suspect this was because the panel didn’t want to endorse a policy that’s at odds with that of the nominee.
Democratic lawmakers have expressed confidence that Congress will deliver on legalization regardless of the Biden administration position on the issue.
House Democratic leadership recently announced that the chamber will vote its version of Harris’s comprehensive legalization bill later this month, setting the stage for a potential conflict with Biden if he’s asked to respond.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who recently won his primary battle against Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), said last month that legalization will be at the forefront of the congressional agenda in 2021 if Biden and Harris are elected. He also said during a separate interview in July that Congress will advance marijuana reform regardless of Biden’s stance.
Congressional Cannabis Caucus cochair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who was among the DNC platform committee members who surprisingly voted against the legalization amendment, said last week that the former vice president is going to need to evolve on marijuana policy and support legalization.
On the Republican side of the election, President Trump’s reelection campaign has been consistently attacking Biden over his record authoring punitive anti-drug laws in the Senate. They’ve cast him as an “architect” of the drug war while attempting to frame Trump as the criminal justice reform candidate. That’s despite the fact that the president’s administration has taken several hostile actions on the marijuana front that stop short of a full-scale crackdown on businesses in legalized states.
Last month, the president also urged Republicans not to place marijuana legalization initiatives on state ballots out of concern that it will increase Democratic turnout in elections.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marc Nozell.