Former Vice President Joe Biden reaffirmed that he’s opposed to legalizing marijuana without further studying its potential health risks.
In an interview with The New York Times editorial board that was published on Friday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was asked to explain his “more moderate approach” to cannabis policy when nearly all of his primary opponents, as well as the public, have embraced broad legalization.
“Because I think science matters,” he said. “I mean one of the reasons I’m running against the guy I’m running against is science matters, not fiction.”
He also said that he’s not arguing that marijuana is a gateway drug—something he did indicate might be the case last year, though he walked it back after facing pushback and being attacked for the statement on a debate stage.
“What I’m arguing is there have been studies showing that it complicates other problems if you already have a problem with certain drugs,” Biden said. “So we should just study it and decriminalize it, but study it and find out. Get the medical community to come up with a final definitive answer as to whether or not it does cause it. If it does cause other problems, then make it clear to people. So that’s a place you don’t not engage in the use of it.”
The former vice president’s marijuana reform plan involves rescheduling the plant to make it easier for researchers to access, decriminalizing simple possession and expunging prior cannabis records.
A member of the Times editorial board noted that marijuana is legal in some form in a majority of states, to which Biden said, “Sure they have. I get that, but that doesn’t mean the science shouldn’t be looked at.”
The former vice president has previously said that states should be able to implement their own legalization laws without federal interference.
Asked whether he’d support legalizing cannabis while simultaneously encouraging research into it, the candidate said “no.”
“Why would you promote the science if the science would say it’d be a bad idea to legalize it? You’ve got to find out the facts first,” he said.
“But by the way, let’s get something straight here. I’ve argued for some time total decriminalization. Anyone who has a record, it should be immediately expunged. So when you come to work for The New York Times, and they ask you if you have any problems, any criminal arrests, you don’t have to say yes, because it will be completely expunged. And in fact, there should be anyone who is in fact, has been served any time in prison or is in prison, which a few people are these days, that they immediately be released, and the record totally expunged.”
Earlier in the interview, Biden was asked to reflect on “anything that you have changed your mind about,” and he brought up his record on criminal justice reform—particularly his role in crafting punitive anti-drug laws aimed at crack cocaine as a senator during the Reagan administration.
“I made a big mistake in the criminal justice side when I—it’s easy to forget it now—but when, all of a sudden, crack was introduced as a great threat to the United States of America,” he said.
“And you had medical folks at the time saying, well, crack, because it immediately penetrates the membrane of the brain and it goes straight to the brain, it’s going to have this long-term effect,” he continued. “So we bought on to the idea that crack somehow should be punished much more significantly than, in fact, powdered cocaine. Well, what it meant was somebody snorting powder in the party you guys go to.”
Under the Anti Drug Abuse Act that Biden helped draft and was an original cosponsor for, crack offenses were made 100 times more severe than powder cocaine, leading to rampant racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“But it’s put a lot of people in jeopardy, put them in jail, and it’s had a disproportionate impact on minority communities, particularly African-American communities. I sorely regret that,” he said, adding that while serving as vice president under President Obama, he advocated for legislation that reduced the sentencing disparity somewhat.
“We’ve also learned a lot more about drug abuse overall. It used to be that we thought—I’ve spent a lot of my career in the Judiciary Committee dealing with this issue,” he said. “We used to argue—and you tell me when I’m going longer than I should—we used to deal with it in terms of we thought that mental illness was a product of drug abuse. It’s the reverse. Mental illness is the reason for drug abuse. It’s not the reverse.”
“And that’s why, when I wrote the crime bill that everybody for a while there thought that was a massive reason for massive incarceration, which it wasn’t, I might add,” he said. “But what happened was I put in that bill, at the time, drug courts to try to divert anyone arrested for a drug offense to a drug court for rehab, not to go to jail.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marc Nozell.