President Joe Biden’s opposition to marijuana legalization is well known. But the political calculus behind his refusal to embrace the reform during his 2020 campaign goes deeper and may have racial implications, according to an elected official who served on a policy task force Biden assembled.
Stacey Walker, a Linn County, Iowa supervisor who was recruited for a joint task force meant to inform Biden’s criminal justice platform ahead of his formal nomination last summer, disclosed in a new video that the then-candidate “was really concerned about how [supporting legalization] could have impacted the outcome of the election.”
But while task force members came “armed with polling data that suggested that a majority of Americans were in favor” of ending prohibition, the Biden team had a different view, said Walker, who before joining the panel was an Iowa co-chair for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) presidential campaign.
“I think there was a political calculation there being made [by the Biden team] that working class people didn’t want to deal in these issues of cannabis legalization because, for far too long, people have made a link between cannabis legalization and black folks.”
SCOOP: Joe Biden, behind closed doors last summer, personally rejected a push to make legalizing cannabis the official policy of the Democratic Party.
Now the Biden White House is disqualifying staffers because they smoked weed. pic.twitter.com/I1pM2KDY8u
— More Perfect Union (@MorePerfectUS) March 19, 2021
“President Biden wanted to commit more study to this before making a decision,” Walker said in the video released the media company More Perfect Union. “But we know that the longer we wait on taking meaningful action at the federal level, the more people we’re going to lock up, the more lives we’re going to ruin, the more we’re going to perpetuate the disturbingly unfair war on drugs.”
In the video, Walker was interviewed by former Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir, who said that Biden’s team “was potentially concerned about the political effects that it might have with their own constituency and maybe costing them some votes in key battleground states, rather than actually winning them votes as we believed would occur and mobilizing a hell of a lot of people around the issue.”
“That was the exact conversation, if you want to be real, ” Walker replied.
These are remarkable disclosures to be coming from someone with direct involvement in the Biden-Sanders panel, which ultimately chose not to recommend that the candidate adopt a pro-legalization position.
But part of the reason they’re remarkable is because that “political calculation” Biden seemingly used to justify maintaining opposition to the reform is the opposite of what research has turned up on the issue.
Certainly advocates have linked marijuana prohibition to people of color given the racist origins and disproportionate enforcement of the policy—but the idea that “working class” people would be turned off if Biden supported legalization because of an association with black people is a theoretical abstraction that ignores the widespread, and increasingly bipartisan, popularity of the issue.
In fact, voters in the battleground state Arizona overwhelmingly approved an initiative to legalize cannabis during the November election, as did voters in traditionally conservative states like Montana and South Dakota. Legal marijuana got more vote than Biden did in all three states, with cannabis reform measures in New Jersey and Mississippi also outperforming the Democratic nominee on Election Day.
Regardless, Biden’s position has not changed. Instead, he supports more modest reforms such as decriminalizing possession, legalizing medical cannabis, expunging prior marijuana records, rescheduling the plant and allowing states to set their own cannabis policies.
It is also suspected that the president’s views on the issue influenced the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee to reject an amendment last year that would have added legalization as a 2020 party plank.
The Biden administration is also coming under fire from reform advocates after The Daily Beast reported on Thursday that dozens of White House staff were either terminated, suspended or placed in a remote work program after they disclosed prior marijuana use. It’s a policy that Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) described to Marijuana Moment as an “antiquated response” by the federal government.
Walker also criticized that move in a tweet on Friday.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that if Mr. Biden held his top advisors to this standard on whether or not they’ve used marijuana in the past, he would have almost no top advisors.
Also cannabis should be legalized. I can’t believe this is still up for debate. https://t.co/FIFWH53EvW
— Stacey Walker (@swalker06) March 19, 2021
“I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that if Mr. Biden held his top advisors to this standard on whether or not they’ve used marijuana in the past, he would have almost no top advisors,” he said. “Also cannabis should be legalized. I can’t believe this is still up for debate.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marc Nozell.