Former Vice President Joe Biden (D) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have announced plans to form working groups with a mix of ideological views to develop policy solutions to a wide range of issues, including criminal justice and drug policy reform.
During a livestream on Monday, the two former rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination laid out a shared agenda heading into the November election. Biden became the presumptive nominee after Sanders dropped out of the race last week, and the senator has now offered his endorsement.
Given the sharp divides between their platforms and Biden’s need to shore up support from those who’ve backed Sanders, the working groups represent one example of how his campaign is attempting to bridge those gaps and show a unified Democratic Party despite ideological differences. And while it’s not clear whether the former vice president is willing to budge in his opposition to marijuana legalization, that’s one area that reform advocates are closely following.
“I know we share the same goals on many of these things. We’ve had different ideas about how to accomplish them, but on some issues we’re going to continue to disagree respectfully, but not in any substantive way,” Biden said on the stream. “I believe there’s a great opportunity—a great opportunity to work together to deploy policy approaches that can take us closer to our shared goals.”
Six working groups will be established to tackle criminal justice reform, the economy, education, climate, immigration and health care.
“It should be reform, not punishment,” Biden said of the criminal justice initiative, adding that “thoughtful leaders” who’ve worked with both camps will be appointed to lead the groups. Those individuals have not yet been named.
The presumptive nominee also briefly discussed criminal justice and drug policy later in the remote event. He said the coronavirus pandemic has exposed shortcomings in government and how we approach various issues.
The outbreak “kind of ripped the bandaid off, exposed how the substructure of this economy is so, so damaged by what’s going on,” Biden said. “The idea we’re still arguing about whether health care is a right is bizarre. The idea that we continue to think that the way to deal with the criminal justice system now that we know so much and have learned so much is to punish instead of rehabilitate, the idea that we put someone in jail for drug abuse and we don’t put them in a mandatory rehabilitation as opposed to prison” are also wrong.
(Drug policy reform advocates would generally disagree with a proposal to enforce mandatory treatment, and have criticized how drug courts —a model long championed by Biden—continue to handle a health issue through a criminal justice lens.)
Sanders said during the discussion that the U.S. “should not have more people in jail than any other country, disproportionately African American and Latino.”
The elephant in the virtual room, of course, is that during Biden’s time as a senator, he played a key role in enacting some of the punitive anti-drug laws he’s now seeking to address. And while he’s evolved on several fronts and now backs medical cannabis legalization, decriminalization of possession, expunging prior convictions, modest federal rescheduling and letting states set their own laws, he remains opposed to adult-use legalization at a time when the majority of his party—especially young people, whose votes he needs—are in favor of the policy change.
A majority of Americans—66 percent—are in favor of legalization, according to a Gallup poll released last year. An analysis of demographic data shows that Biden’s continued support for marijuana prohibition is even more problematic. Among those 18-29, 88 percent want cannabis legalized. And for those 30-49, 71 percent are in favor of the policy change.
It seems reasonable to assume that the criminal justice working group will be taking a critical look at that stance. What’s less certain is if Biden will actually cede to any recommendations that ultimately advise him to back legalization. Biden has said he’s unwilling to support the policy until more research is done to establish that cannabis is not harmful.
Sanders, on the other hand, is one of the most vocal advocates for comprehensive marijuana reform in Congress, and he became the first major presidential candidate to call for legalization during his 2016 run. Late in his most recent campaign, the senator pledged to legalize marijuana in all 50 states on his first day in office through executive action.
“It’s no great secret, Joe, that you and I have our differences, and we are not going to paper them over. That’s real,” Sanders said during the event. “But I hope that these task forces will come together, utilizing the best minds and people in your campaign and in my campaign, to work out real solutions to these very, very important problems.”
Biden said his former rival doesn’t “get enough credit…for being the voice that forces us to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’ve done enough. And we haven’t.”
The former vice president also asked Sanders about the issues that young people care about most—signaling that he’s aware of the deficit he’s running with the younger demographic. To that end, a group of youth activists urged him to to adopt a “bold” policy platform, including issues such as marijuana legalization, in a letter last week.