Former Vice President Joe Biden said during Thursday’s Democratic debate that marijuana offenses should be treated as misdemeanors—a position that puts him sorely out of step with every other presidential primary opponent on the debate stage, all of whom are calling for outright cannabis legalization.
“Nobody who got in prison for marijuana, for example—immediately upon being released, they shouldn’t be in there.” he said. “That should be a misdemeanor.”
“They should be out and their record should be expunged. Every single right should be returned,” he said. “When you finish your term in prison, you should be able to not only vote but have access to Pell grants, have access to be able to get housing, have access to be able to move along the way.”
Biden previously called for cannabis decriminalization as part of his criminal justice plan, but his statement about making marijuana offenses misdemeanors could cause some confusion given that, in many but not all cases, misdemeanor offenses carry the possibility of jail time. He did say at one point that nobody should be incarcerated for a non-violent crime, however.
Biden also said that “nobody should be in jail for a drug problem” and that the country should invest more in “rehabilitation centers, not prisons.”
“We have to change the whole way we look at this,” he said.
NORML was quick to challenge Biden’s response, writing on Twitter that “you just said marijuana should be a misdemeanor. You couldn’t be more wrong.”
We haven't forgot your role in mass incarceration and mandatory minimums.
— NORML (@NORML) September 13, 2019
“It should be LEGAL,” NORML said. “We haven’t forgot your role in mass incarceration and mandatory minimums.”
Biden has routinely faced criticism by his Democratic opponents over his role in advancing punitive drug laws, including the 1994 crime bill, during his time in the Senate. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who also weighed in on drug policy at the debate, said Biden’s criminal justice reform plan is inadequate and argued shortly after its release in July that the “proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”
“Our criminal justice system is so savagely broken,” Booker said during Thursday’s debate. “There’s no difference in America between blacks, whites and Latinos for using drugs or dealing drugs—but if you’re African American, you’re almost four times more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, destroying your lives. So much of this comes down to privilege.”
Booker also said that he planned to grant mass clemency for thousands of incarcerated Americans, decrying “systemic racism that is eroding our nation” and noting that “we have more African Americans under criminal supervision today than all the slaves in 1850.”
“We need to reform this system and we must do it now,” he said. “Every day that we wait is too long.”
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg also briefly weighed in, noting the “overincarcaration of black Americans.”
The debate segment on criminal justice began with a question first directed at Sen. Kamala Harris of California, with the moderator noting her prior opposition to cannabis legalization and her record as a prosecutor overall.
“There have been many distortions of my record,” Harris said, adding that she was “born knowing about how the criminal justice system in America has worked and has been informed by racial bias.”
“I took on the position that allowed me, without asking permission, to create one of the first-in-the-nation initiatives that became a national model around people who are getting arrested for drugs and getting them jobs,” she said. She went on to say that she’d end mass incarceration and private prisons.
Harris faced a similar grilling from 2020 candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) during the last debate in August.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota weighed in to say that the country should go beyond legislation that passed to reform criminal sentencing and “move to the Second Step Act.” She didn’t mention whether marijuana reform would be a part of that step, however.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro didn’t address the issue on the stage but included marijuana legalization in a list of “bold ideas” in a tweet his campaign posted shortly after the start of the debate.
We need bold ideas to win.
Legalize marijuana. Universal health care and universal Pre-K. Unleashing millions of new jobs in a clean energy economy. Reform policing. Declaring housing as a human right.#DemDebate pic.twitter.com/17VwcllaeP
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) September 13, 2019
Marijuana Moment received recommended questions for candidates from representatives of six major cannabis legalization advocacy groups. Though those pointed questions weren’t asked at this debate, drug policy reform supporters did end up seeing their issue discussed at length before political observers across the nation.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/ABC News.
Civil Rights Groups Urge Congress To Delay Marijuana Banking Vote
A coalition of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance is urging congressional Democratic leaders to delay a planned vote on a marijuana banking bill next week until more far-reaching legislation ending federal cannabis prohibition advances first.
“We are concerned that if the House approves this bill, it will undermine broader and more inclusive efforts to reform our country’s marijuana laws,” the groups wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a letter on Tuesday.
Hoyer’s office confirmed to Marijuana Moment last week that the House planned to vote on the cannabis financial services legislation by the end of the month.
“The Congress has a unique opportunity to address the myriad injustices created by this nation’s marijuana laws. For decades, people of color have suffered under harsh and racially-biased marijuana laws,” the groups, which also include Center for American Progress, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and JustLeadershipUSA, wrote. “The banking bill does not address marijuana reform holistically. Instead, it narrowly addresses the issues of banking and improved access to financial services, measures that would benefit the marijuana industry, not communities who have felt the brunt of prohibition.”
The letter is the most public sign yet of a dispute that has been brewing among advocates in the marijuana policy reform movement, with some seeing a successful vote on banking legislation as demonstrating momentum for broader reform and others expressing concern that the financial services proposal primarily helps the industry and could take the wind out of the sails of a full-scale push to end prohibition.
Advocates who want broader reform have focused on a bill that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) filed this summer that would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and invest money into programs aimed at repairing the harms of the war on drugs, which has been waged in a racially disproportionate manner.
“Individuals and communities who are still suffering from the destabilizing collateral consequences of prohibition need reform and should not be second in line behind the industry,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “We need to ensure that the sequencing of federal marijuana bills, especially under House Democratic Leadership, is well thought out and done in a way that centers the millions directly impacted by overenforcement. We want to avoid the banking bill becoming Congress’ only bite at the apple for cannabis reform this session.”
Nadler’s bill, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, has been referred by House leadership to eight committees, none of which—including his own—have scheduled a vote on it. The financial services legislation—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—cleared a committee with a bipartisan vote in March and has been waiting on the House calendar for floor action for months.
“It’s a difference in tactics, not desired outcomes,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal, who supports going forward with the banking vote next week, told Marijuana Moment. “It’s our hope that the SAFE Banking vote demonstrates which members of Congress are willing to recognize the successes of state level reforms as we continue to move the MORE Act through the committee process.”
Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, took a similar view.
“The SAFE Banking Act is a necessary reform that would represent a major step toward more sensible cannabis laws, and it’s looking increasingly likely that it can actually pass soon,” he said. “We have an opportunity to end policies that actively endanger people, hurt small businesses, and stymie equitable participation in the cannabis industry. Banking reform is certainly not the end of the road, and the industry is committed to working in support of far more comprehensive reforms that more fully address the harms caused by prohibition. Passage of this legislation will only add momentum to those efforts.”
But the groups signing the new letter disagree.
“Marijuana legislation must first address the equity and criminal justice reform consequences of prohibition,” they wrote to Pelosi and Hoyer.
“To be clear, we recognize the challenges facing marijuana businesses that lack access to financial services. However, we believe it is a mistake to move this issue forward while many of the other consequences of marijuana prohibition remain unresolved,” they wrote in urging the House not to vote on cannabis financial services legislation next week. “The banking bill does not solve the underlying problems of marijuana prohibition – namely, that many people of color have been saddled with criminal records for a substance that is now legal in many states, and that communities have been shut out of the emerging and booming marijuana industry.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of Capitol, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said last week that he plans a vote on the marijuana banking bill in his panel by the end of the year. That chamber’s version of the legislation got its 33rd senator signed on this week, meaning that it now has the proactive support of a third of the body’s membership.
Because House leaders plan to bring the marijuana banking bill to the floor under a procedure known as suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass, any Democratic votes lost as a result of the groups’ opposition could jeopardize the legislation. The SAFE Banking Act currently has 207 lawmakers signed on, whereas 290 votes are needed to approve a bill under suspension.
“Since the start of the 116th Congress, we have expressed concern to House Leadership, the House Financial Services Committee, and member offices, that if the banking bill moved to the Floor before broader reform, it would jeopardize comprehensive marijuana reform,” the concerned groups wrote in their letter. “Therefore, we have pushed for a conversation among advocates, Committee leadership, and House Leadership to formulate a plan for moving marijuana legislation in a way that is comprehensive and does not result in carve-outs for the industry and leave behind impacted communities.”
“We ask that you delay any vote on the banking bill until agreement has been reached around broader marijuana reform,” they said.
Read the full letter urging a delay on the marijuana banking vote below:
This story has been updated to include comment from Drug Policy Alliance and National Cannabis Industry Association.
Bernie Sanders Asks Campaign Rally Audience To Share Stories About Marijuana Arrests
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked an audience in South Carolina to share stories about marijuana possession convictions and then argued that those anecdotes help to demonstrate the case for national legalization.
During a campaign stop in the early primary state on Sunday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate asked people to raise their hands if they knew someone who’d been arrested for possessing cannabis. There was no shortage of hands raised.
“Holy God, whoa. That’s a lot of people,” Sanders said before asking for volunteers to go into detail.
“I got caught with about a joint and they took my license for a year and I lost my job,” an audience member said. “Ended up losing my house, and it went worse from there.”
The War on Drugs has been a disaster. It is time to legalize marijuana nationwide. pic.twitter.com/tehuM7xjxx
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 17, 2019
“Wow, this is for smoking a joint?” Sanders asked.
“Yeah, I had a little—like a dime bag in my car,” the person said.
Another person in attendance who appeared in the campaign video Sanders released on Tuesday said that she visited a guilty plea court and witnessed “three different men get put in at least two years of prison just for anywhere from two grams to eight grams of marijuana found on them.”
“That’s why all over this country states are doing the right thing and either decriminalizing or legalizing the possession of marijuana,” Sanders said to applause.
Since becoming the first major party presidential candidate to call for cannabis legalization in 2015, Sanders has continued to place an emphasis on the need for marijuana reform, with a focus on the racial injustices of prohibition.
Last month, he released a criminal justice reform plan that included proposals to legalize cannabis federally and also provide for safe injection sites to curb opioid overdoses.
But while Sanders has been a leading voice in the drug policy reform movement, he’s said twice in recent weeks that he’s not ready to embrace decriminalizing possession of drugs beside marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull.
New York Gov. Cuomo Hints Marijuana Smoking Ban Could Be Part Of Next Legalization Push
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) seemed to suggest that he might want a ban on smoking marijuana included in legalization legislation when lawmakers take up the issue again next year.
During an interview with MSNBC on Sunday, the governor was asked whether the spike in apparent vaping-related lung injuries and deaths, which experts attribute to altered nicotine and cannabis oils primarily purchased on the illicit market, has made him reconsider pursuing legalization in the state.
“No,” he said, adding that his administration is “not in favor of smoking marijuana” and that there are “ways to get THC without smoking marijuana.”
“People are vaping THC, yes that is true,” Cuomo said. “We think that from a public health point of view, that is not something that we recommend and we think it’s dangerous—smoking of any kind.”
“You can legalize marijuana and sell THC in compounds that do not require you to smoke the marijuana, and we do not support smoking of marijuana,” he said. “There are compounds that have the THC, which is a compound in marijuana, that you don’t smoke.”
It’s not entirely clear if Cuomo plans to ask for a smoking ban the next time a legalization bill emerges or if he was simply outlining an administrative position advising against smoking. A spokesperson for his office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment by the time of publication.
But while there was no ban on marijuana smoking included in legalization legislation that he worked to pass earlier this year, it wouldn’t be entirely out of character given that he pushed for such a restriction as part of New York’s medical cannabis program in legislation enacted in 2014.
The logic behind that policy, according to Cuomo, was that it would prevent people from abusing the program. If he moved to incorporate a ban for adult-use legalization, however, it would presumably be a public health decision.
That could create problems when lawmakers return to the negotiating table. In California, flower and concentrates represent about 70 percent of the marijuana market, meaning any attempt to ban smokeable cannabis will likely be met with pushback from consumers, industry stakeholders and civil liberties-minded reform advocates.
Industry players seemed to have influence when Cuomo included a ban on home cultivation for personal use in his prior legalization proposal—something a major medical cannabis association recommended in a policy statement submitted to the governor.
For the time being, however, there don’t seem to be tangible plans to include a smoking ban in future cannabis legislation and it could be that the governor simply ends up pushing for public education campaigns discouraging the activity rather than keeping it illegal.
In July, he signed legislation broadening New York’s decriminalization law and creating a pathway for expungements for individuals with prior cannabis convictions.
Photo courtesy of MSNBC.