Former Vice President Joe Biden (D) released a wide-ranging criminal justice reform plan on Tuesday that, among other things, calls for the decriminalization of marijuana use and automatic expungements for those with prior cannabis convictions. The proposal was swiftly rebuked as inadequate by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who is also seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
“Biden believes no one should be in jail because of cannabis use,” a summary of the plan states. “As president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.”
Further, the Democratic presidential candidate is backing the federal legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, allowing states to set their own policies for adult-use marijuana and rescheduling cannabis to Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) “so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.”
Too many people are incarcerated in the US – and many don’t have resources to successfully rejoin society after serving their time.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) July 23, 2019
It’s not certain what kind of legalization model Biden is envisioning, however. State-level medical cannabis programs generally involve having a doctor issue a recommendation and patients obtaining their cannabis from licensed dispensaries. If marijuana moved to Schedule II, that could potentially require patients to get a prescription that meets the regulatory standards of other Schedule II drugs such as fentanyl and have their prescriptions filled at a traditional pharmacy.
In any case, the proposal includes several other drug policy and criminal reform provisions. The former vice president said he will strive to end sentencing disparities for crack versus powder cocaine convictions, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, abolish the death penalty and stop people from being incarcerated for illicit drug use
“Biden believes that no one should be imprisoned for the use of illegal drugs alone,” the summary reads. “Instead, Biden will require federal courts to divert these individuals to drug courts so they receive treatment to address their substance use disorder. He’ll incentivize states to put the same requirements in place.”
But as Booker was quick to point out, many of the reform proposals the former vice president is making today would target federal laws that he himself played a key role in advancing during his time in the Senate, particularly as it relates to the 1994 crime bill that Biden helped author.
“Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right,” Booker said in a press release. “The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”
It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years. You created this system. We’ll dismantle it.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) July 23, 2019
“While it’s encouraging to see Vice President Biden finally come around to supporting many of the ideas I and others have proposed, his plan falls short of the transformative change our broken criminal justice system needs,” he said. “Any comprehensive plan simply must include the legalization of marijuana, an overhaul of policing practices, ambitious use of presidential clemency power to right past wrongs, and reinvestment in the communities that have borne the costs of mass incarceration. Joe Biden’s plan doesn’t do that.”
NEW from @CoryBooker:
— Chris Moyer (@ChrisMoyerNH) July 23, 2019
Booker, who is the sponsor of a far-reaching marijuana legalization bill, unveiled a criminal justice reform plan last month that would involve immediately establishing a process to grant clemency to about 17,000 federal inmates serving time for non-violent drug offenses—more than half of whom are locked up for cannabis-related convictions.
This isn’t the first time that the senator has taken a swipe at Biden over his record.
It’s not simply that Biden played a role in instituting policies that contributed to mass incarceration and escalated the drug war, Booker said last month, it’s that he seems to have an “inability to talk candidly about the mistakes he made, about things he could’ve done better, about how some of the decisions he made at the time, in difficult context, actually have resulted in really bad outcomes.”
The conversation around marijuana reform among 2020 Democratic candidates has been especially revealing this campaign season, with contenders increasingly seeking to stand out by embracing bolder and bolder proposals that go beyond simply legalizing cannabis but ensuring that social equity and restorative justice are at the forefront of those measures.
To that end, Biden does stand out in that he’s one of the only candidates who hasn’t voiced support for descheduling cannabis and whose recent evolution on the issue stops far short of what many advocates are looking for in a president.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), on the other hand, has taken pains to project an image of a cannabis friendly candidate. Though she was previously dismissive of reform proposals and actively opposed a California measure to legalize marijuana, she’s since signed onto several wide-ranging bills that are embraced by the reform movement.
The most recent example is legalization legislation that she and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced on Tuesday that would remove cannabis from the CSA, expunge prior cannabis convictions and create funds to reinvest in communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Photo courtesy of Senate Democrats.