Joe Biden seemed to get pretty close to backing marijuana legalization at a New Hampshire campaign event this week—but after seeming to acknowledge that the policy change as inevitable, he reaffirmed he wouldn’t pursue it until more research is done.
The former vice president told Marijuana Policy Project’s Don Murphy on Tuesday that “I think it is at the point where it has to be basically legalized” in a recording first reported by Politico on Thursday.
“But I’m not prepared to do it as long as there’s serious medical people saying we should determine what other side effects would occur,” he said.
Listen to Biden’s marijuana comments:
Biden’s line about marijuana needing to be “basically legalized” stands out, as he’s one of the only 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who opposes the reform move, alongside billionaire Michael Bloomberg.
But while it sounds like the candidate was on the precipice of endorsing legalization in the brief comment, he ultimately stuck to his existing position, which he’s previously said includes federally decriminalizing marijuana, legalizing medical cannabis, rescheduling the substance to promote research, expunging prior cannabis convictions and letting states set their own policies.
Murphy told Marijuana Moment that the conversation “turned out to be a big nothing.”
“He clearly didn’t clarify his position. He made it as unclear as ever,” he said. “Maybe, to his credit, he spent 40 years with this position. I would actually feel better about his position if he just dug his heels in. He’s trying to have it both ways. You’re either a yes or a no on this.”
Erik Altieri, executive director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment that cannabis “doesn’t need to be ‘basically’ legalized, it needs to be legalized full stop.”
“We also cannot afford to delay any longer on advancing serious cannabis law reform at the federal level,” he said. “Over 600,000 Americans are still being arrested every year while politicians like Joe Biden still refuse to read and accept the current research. He needs to join the majority of his fellow candidates and the overwhelming majority of Americans who want to stop our failed prohibition and push for it with the urgency it deserves.”
“The science is clear and the morality is clear, marijuana is objectively less harmful than other legal substances and our continued enforcement of prohibition is a disastrous national embarrassment that must end,” he said.
Also in the conversation, Biden said a few times that he doesn’t believe cannabis is a gateway drug, apparently trying to distance himself from remarks he made last year that got him in hot water with reform advocates and called out on a presidential debate stage. Biden quickly reversed himself after saying at the time that he thinks marijuana might lead to more dangerous substance use, citing it as one reason he opposes legalization.
“It’s not a gateway drug. It’s not a gateway drug,” he said in the new recording. “I think science matters, and I would have the [National Institute of Health] looking and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] looking at it.”
Maritza Perez, national affairs director for Drug Policy Action, told Marijuana Moment that Biden’s “positions on marijuana continue to feel out of touch and unhelpful to the current conversations on marijuana policy.”
“The fact is that a majority of Americans across demographic groups support legalizing marijuana. Lawmakers should heed the public’s call and remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act,” she said. “This should be accompanied by robust protections for people most adversely impacted by the war on drugs, such as providing for the expungement and resentencing of old marijuana convictions.”
Murphy told Biden at the end of their conversation that “I’d encourage you to talk about that on the debate stage because there are a lot of people in New England who are in states that allow this but the federal government doesn’t. This conflict needs to be fixed, and you get a chance to do it if you’re president.”
Campaign staff also told Politico that Biden hasn’t budged on the issue and that he was simply “restating his cannabis policy.”
This story has been updated to include comment from NORML’s Altieri and DPA’s Perez.