Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Wednesday announced the names of members of several new task forces they formed to explore policies in six major areas, including a criminal justice reform panel that is stacked with cannabis legalization supporters.
Drug policy reform advocates have been particularly interested to learn who would comprise the criminal justice group since it was first announced last month, with some holding out hope that members will push Biden—the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee—to support marijuana legalization.
At least five participants in the new eight-member panel go further than Biden—who opposes legalizing recreational marijuana but backs decriminalization, medical cannabis, automatic expungements, rescheduling and letting states set their own laws—by supporting adult-use legalization on the federal and/or state levels.
All told, it appears that every member of the group—three of whom were selected by Sanders and five chosen by Biden—have publicly called for cannabis reform to at least some extent, with a few having experience legislating on the issue.
“A united party is key to defeating Donald Trump this November and moving our country forward through an unprecedented crisis. As we work toward our shared goal, it is especially critical that we not lose sight of the pressing issues facing Americans,” Biden said in a statement. “From health care to reforming our justice system to rebuilding a more inclusive and fair economy, the work of the task forces will be essential to identifying ways to build on our progress and not simply turn the clock back to a time before Donald Trump, but transform our country.”
“In the midst of the unprecedented economic and pandemic crises we face, the Democratic Party must think big, act boldly, and fight to change the direction of this country,” Sanders added. “To create an agenda that the working class of this country desperately needs, and moves us toward a more just society, we must solicit the best ideas.
The task force is set to meet and submit policy recommendations to the Democratic National Committee Platform Committee and to Biden directly ahead of the party’s convention in August.
Here’s a look at where the new criminal justice task force members stand on marijuana:
Tennessee Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D)
The state senator has introduced legislation to legalize marijuana for adult use, reduce penalties for cannabis offenses and provide for judicial diversion in cases involving a convictions for marijuana possession of up to one ounce.
“This legislation makes criminal justice more fair, creates thousands of Tennessee jobs, and invests real money in our students and teachers,” Akbari said of the legalization bill in January. “With marijuana now available closer and closer to our state, it’s time for Tennesseans to have a real discussion about repealing outdated penalties for low-level possession and investing in our economic future and public schools through legalization.”
“Tennessee’s tough-on-crime possession laws have trapped too many of our citizens in cycles of poverty, and they haven’t actually stopped anyone from obtaining marijuana,” she said. “The enforcement of these laws in particular [has] cost our state billions, contributed to a black market that funds criminal organizations, and accelerated the growth of incarceration in Tennessee’s jails and prisons. Tennesseans deserve better.”
The senator has also voted in favor of a medical cannabis legalization bill and offered an amendment that would add sickle cell anemia to the list of qualifying conditions for patients.
Happening now in Crim Justice Sub- @JeremyFaison4TN is presenting the “Medical Cannabis Act” and an amendment I filed adding #SickleCellAnemia to one of the eligible diseases for med cannabis was just added. This is going to be a long, but potentially historic meeting. #tnleg pic.twitter.com/wJdtKoA3gH
— Senator Raumesh Akbari (@SenAkbari) February 27, 2018
Former federal prosecutor and Demos Director of Legal Strategies Chiraag Bains (co-chair)
As a prosecutor in the Justice Department, Bains’s focus was on police accountability and hate crimes. However, he’s also touted Sanders’s comprehensive marijuana legalization plan and criticized acts by the Trump administration to undermine protections for legal cannabis states.
During a Democratic presidential debate in February, he tweeted that Sanders’s plan goes beyond decriminalization and also calls for expungements and racial equity in legal marijuana markets. “That reflects deep understanding of what the War on Drugs has wrought,” he said.
This is important. @BernieSanders is not just proposing decriminalization. He’s saying we need expungement to undo the harm, and racial equity in how the legalized marijuana industry develops. That reflects deep understanding of what the War on Drugs has wrought. #DemDebate https://t.co/OahQ9fiP8T
— Chiraag Bains (@chiraagbains) February 26, 2020
That Bains stressed the importance of racial equity in the industry indicates he’s supportive of establishing a legal and regulated marijuana market in the first place, a position Biden has so far declined to back.
He also called out former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg for saying we need to move slowly on legalization, comparing that stance to his record in maintaining controversial police tactics like stop-and-frisk during his time as mayor of New York City.
Bloomberg cautions that we should go slow on marijuana legalization until we know the consequences. Notable that he didn’t take that approach to stop & frisk. #DemDebate
— Chiraag Bains (@chiraagbains) February 26, 2020
Bains, who was selected for the task force by Sanders, noted last year that Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) criminal justice reform plan “covers all marijuana-related offenses” as well as “people with sentences unjustly inflated by the continuing racist crack-cocaine disparity.” That latter group was directly impacted by Biden, who helped author the punitive anti-drug laws that resulted in those sentencing disparities during his time as a senator.
Booker’s plan covers all marijuana-related offenses, people who would have benefited from the First Step Act if all its provisions were retroactive, and people with sentences unjustly inflated by the continuing racist crack-cocaine disparity. /5
— Chiraag Bains (@chiraagbains) June 21, 2019
He also said that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to rescind Obama-era guidance that laid out cannabis enforcement priorities for federal prosecutors “will make a difference” as it concerns increasing mass incarceration.
The thing to remember is this: we have mass incarceration because we chose it, not because public safety required it.
— Chiraag Bains (@chiraagbains) January 8, 2018
South Carolina Rep. Justin Bamberg (D)
He’s tweeted several times about disparate sentences for marijuana offenses; however, he’s so far declined to cosponsor cannabis-related legislation in more recent sessions.
How TF you get 10yrs for a MURDER conviction ⁉️ She took a young man’s ENTIRE LIFE. I mean damn ‼️ It’s folks serving 25+ for selling marijuana, stealing TVs, and far less petty stuff for Pete sake… #ThePeoplesRep® #BambergLegal® #GoodBetterBamberg®
— Justin Bamberg, Esq. (@JustinBamberg) October 2, 2019
But they'll get locked up for smoking a bit of marijuana, even in states that have legalized medical use…
— Justin Bamberg, Esq. (@JustinBamberg) January 31, 2018
This really pisses me off. All the crime in America is NOT in minority neighborhoods. Neither is all the marijuana. @SteveBenjaminSC I hope you will choose to not support @MikeBloomberg SC and America deserved better than this — it could have been you or I who fit his description https://t.co/vH9K9CxHUR
— Justin Bamberg, Esq. (@JustinBamberg) February 11, 2020
Former Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta
The former prosecutor and current president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR) is supportive of marijuana legalization and has strongly condemned harsh criminalization policies for non-violent drug offenses.
In a 2014 p-ed for CNN, Gupta explained how a high-profile case of a Missouri man who was sentenced to life in prison over marijuana is an example of how criminal justice system has been warped by the drug war, leading to excessive punishment.
“While many of the lawmakers who passed harsh sentencing laws thought they were doing the right thing, the results are now in: This approach has devastated families and communities, generated high recidivism rates, drained state budgets from more productive investments, and has reinforced generations of poverty and disadvantage that disproportionately fall on communities of color,” she wrote, in what could be read as direct criticism of legislation that Biden wrote during his time in the Senate.
“The solution is clear. Instead of taxpayers spending millions of dollars on this unnecessary enforcement and keeping folks…in prison for the rest of their lives, states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care,” she added.
In March 2018, Gupta said that the Trump administration is “seeking a decidedly punitive approach to America’s drug problem—one that seeks to increase already disproportionate sentences for drug offenses & employ the death penalty.”
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is using the same broken playbook on criminal justice. They're seeking a decidedly punitive approach to America’s drug problem – one that seeks to increase already disproportionate sentences for drug offenses & employ the death penalty. 2/
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) March 19, 2018
“We tried the punitive and overly simplistic approach of the War on Drugs approach 30 years ago, and it failed. That’s why we’re seeing, in states around the country, a bipartisan push to recognize that substance use requires a public health approach,” she said. “We must reject efforts to further politicize this crisis. We cannot just do what feels good, or sounds good. We must take an evidenced-based approach to ending the opioid crisis.”
We must reject efforts to further politicize this crisis. We cannot just do what feels good, or sounds good. We must take an evidenced-based approach to ending the opioid crisis. 9/9
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) March 19, 2018
More recently, Gupta has highlighted the dangers of excessive sentences doled out for crack-related offenses and said while Congress took steps to repair those harms, there are still people stuck in prison—and that’s especially concerning during the coronavirus pandemic.
Jones was sentenced in 2007 under the old crack v. powder cocaine disparity – a feature of the failed war on drugs and a grave injustice. Congress changed the law with the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, but many people didn't benefit from the law retroactively.
Jones was one of them.
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) April 1, 2020
The LCCHR president celebrated the House Judiciary Committee passage of a comprehensive cannabis legalization bill last year.
Very big deal. MORE Act passes out of @HouseJudiciary with bipartisan support.
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) November 20, 2019
Her organization has supported that bill and numerous other drug policy reform initiatives, including as part of a collective effort called the Marijuana Justice Coalition. LCCHR was one of more than 100 groups that released a criminal justice plan for the 2020 election calling for the legalization of marijuana and supporting the “dismantling” of the criminalization of other drugs. The group also called for a delay of a House vote on cannabis banking legislation because it said comprehensive reform with a social equity focus should be prioritized.
Last month, LCCHR was one of several organizations urging Congress to extend access to federal coronavirus relief to the marijuana industry.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder
The former attorney general under President Obama has said that he’d vote in favor of legalizing marijuana if he was in Congress and claimed to have internally tried to convince the administration to reschedule cannabis.
In 2009, his Justice Department issued guidance to federal prosecutors emphasizing that it will not be Justice Department policy to go after individuals acting in compliance with state medical cannabis laws.
“It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal,” he said. “This balanced policy formalizes a sensible approach that the Department has been following since January: effectively focus our resources on serious drug traffickers while taking into account state and local laws.”
In 2013, after Colorado and Washington legalized recreational marijuana, Holder’s department issued broader guidelines generally directing federal prosecutors not to interfere with state cannabis laws as long as certain criteria were met.
He said in 2016 that marijuana “ought to be rescheduled” and that it was clearly “not appropriate” for cannabis to be listed in the same classification under federal law as heroin.
Holder also dismissed the idea that marijuana is addictive and said states should be able to continue to legalize cannabis without federal interference.
“Let those be laboratories to see where we want to be,” he said. “I think if you allow the states to experiment we’ll ultimately come to a national consensus about what it is we ought to do with regard to marijuana.”
In Iowa in 2019, while he was considering a presidential bid, Holder said it “seems to me that we’re at a point where we should think seriously about legalization.”
“We did some pretty gutsy and compelling things in not going after Washington and Colorado and allowing them to proceed with the recreational sale of marijuana,” he said of his time as attorney general, adding that he attempted to get the administration to reclassify cannabis but was unsuccessful.
He’s also criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for having an “almost obsession with marijuana… that’s put the Justice Department in this strange place.”
Symone Sanders, senior advisor to Biden
The senior advisor to Biden, who previously served as a top staffer during Sanders’s 2016 presidential run, has defended the former vice president’s modest marijuana reform plan as being progressive.
“I think the vice president has been very clear that there are too many people in jail. Too many people—disproportionately people of color, disproportionately African-American folks—are in jail. And what he has come out and said is that he supports the decriminalization of marijuana,” she said last year. “But not just decriminalization, he supports automatic expungements. That is very important. Most people say, ‘Yeah, we should expunge it, and folks need to go to court and get a lawyer.’ Joe Biden has come out and said, We need automatic expungement.'”
“Our full-fledged platform is coming. You know, we’ve been in this race for a month, but I think folks don’t have to wonder where the vice president sits on [the issues of] if we need to address mandatory minimums, if we need to get rid of the three-strikes rule. He’s on the record on those things and clear, and again, just as recently as last week, he was talking about the decriminalization of marijuana.”
She applauded a move by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who announced last year that her office would not be pursuing cannabis possession cases.
— Symone D. Sanders (@SymoneDSanders) January 31, 2019
U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) (co-chair)
As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Scott cosponsored a bill the group introduced in 2018 that called for marijuana descheduling and reinvestments in communities harmed most by prohibition.
He also signed onto legislation to legalize industrial hemp and has consistently voted in favor of amendments providing protections to protect state adult-use, medical cannabis and CBD programs from federal intervention. He’s also backed measures to let U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana, provide cannabis businesses with access to banking services and encourage cannabis research.
In 2000, the congressman filed an amendment to an education bill that would have removed a penalty stipulating that students who are convicted of drug offenses are disqualified from receiving federal financial aid. It was defeated, however.
Scott signed a letter addressed to the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration in 2012, urging them not to prosecute anyone acting in compliance with state-legal cannabis laws.
“The people of Colorado and Washington have decided that marijuana ought to be regulated like alcohol, with strong and efficient regulation of production, retail sales and distribution, coupled with strict laws against underage use and driving while intoxicated,” the letter states. “These states have chosen to move from a drug policy that spends millions of dollars turning ordinary Americans into criminals toward one that will tightly regulate the use of marijuana while raising tax revenue to support cash-strapped state and local governments.”
“We believe this approach embraces the goals of existing federal marijuana law: to stop international trafficking, deter domestic organized criminal organizations, stop violence associated with the drug trade and protect children,” it continued. “While we recognize that other states have chosen a different path, and further understand that the federal government has an important role to play in protecting against interstate shipments of marijuana leaving Colorado and Washington, we ask that your departments take no action against anyone who acts in compliance with the laws of Colorado, Washington and any other states that choose to regulate marijuana for medicinal or personal use.”
In a floor speech in 2010, Scott encouraged his colleagues to support a resolution aimed at removing cannabis illicitly cultivated on federal lands. He said the purpose of the measure is to “bring attention to this illicit cartel activity and to encourage officials to develop an interagency strategy to stop drug cartels from using Federal lands for large-scale illegal drug crop operations.”
Iowa County Supervisor Stacey Walker
Not much is known about this Iowa politico’s marijuana policy views. He was selected for the task force by Sanders. In 2014, he thanked Iowa Sen. Jack Hatch (D) for introducing legislation that would allow epilepsy patients in the state to access medical cannabis.
— Stacey Walker (@swalker06) March 26, 2014
It remains to be seen whether cannabis reform will be a focal point of the task force’s focus—or whether Biden would be willing to adopt a pro-legalization stance if the group recommends it. Sanders didn’t seem especially optimistic that the former vice president would evolve further, declining in an interview to list the policy among those he feels Biden will come around to.
DEA Seeks Contractor Capable Of Burning Four Tons of Marijuana Per Day
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently reached out for help burning “at least” 1,000 pounds of marijuana per hour for eight hours straight.
Every year, DEA seizes millions of marijuana plants and literal tons of raw cannabis, which eventually end up being destroyed. The successful contractor in Arizona would be responsible for burning marijuana and other controlled substances seized as evidence in drug cases “to a point where there are no detectable levels, as measured by standard analytical methods, of byproduct from the destruction process.”
“DEA shall inspect the incinerator to ensure no drug residue remains,” the agency said.
DEA posted the work description earlier this month in what’s called a “sources sought notice,” an initial step before a formal request for proposals is sent.
“This is not a request for proposals and does not obligate the Government to award a contract,” the post says. “The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is conducting market research, and is encouraging all businesses, including small businesses, to respond to this notice.”
An accompanying statement of work gives a behind-the-scenes look at the DEA’s process of destroying seized drugs. Typical boxes weigh between 40 and 60 pounds, for example, but can weigh up to 200 pounds. Contraband might come in on “semi-trucks, tractor trailers, cargo vans, fork lifts, etc.,” the work description says.
“The drugs are usually tightly compressed ‘bricks’ or ‘bales,’” it continues, and are packaged in all sorts of materials: cardboard, wrapping paper, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, packing tape, “duct tape and derivatives,” plastic evidence bags, “grease/oil” and others. Contractors will be expected to burn that stuff, too.
To avoid potential contact highs, there must be ”proper ventilation” and “no smoke buildup” will be allowed. Other mandates include closed-circuit cameras that capture the entire process, which DEA reserves the right to access, as well as background checks and regular drug tests of all personnel.
Armed DEA agents and contractors will be present during scheduled burns.
The work is also very hush-hush, so whoever gets the job shouldn’t expect to regale friends with stories of the latest large-scale federal weed burning sesh.
“The contractor and its personnel shall hold all information obtained under the DEA contract in the strictest confidence,” the work description says. “All information obtained shall be used only for performing this contract and shall not be divulged nor made known in any manner except as necessary to perform this contract.”
The work would start January 1 of next year and the contract would expire in 2026 unless terminated sooner. The deadline to send information for would-be contractors was Friday.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images
Harris Will Give Biden ‘Honest’ Input On Legalizing Marijuana And Other Issues As Part Of ‘Deal’
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris says she has a “deal” with Joe Biden to candidly share her perspective on a range of progressive policies he currently opposes, including legalizing marijuana. Separately, she also recently discussed cannabis reform in a private meeting with rapper Killer Mike.
During an interview on 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday, the senator was pressed on marijuana and numerous other issues where she and Biden disagree. In response, while she didn’t specifically commit to proactively advocating for comprehensive cannabis reform, she pledged in general that she would always share her views with the would-be president if the pair are elected next week.
“What I will do—and I promise you this and this is what Joe wants me to do, this was part of our deal—I will always share with him my lived experience as it relates to any issue that we confront,” she said after the interviewer listed cannabis legalization among a handful of issues on which she and Biden depart. “I promised Joe that I will give him that perspective and always be honest with him.”
If elected, would Kamala Harris advocate for Medicare for All, a plan Joe Biden doesn’t support?
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) October 26, 2020
Asked whether that perspective will be “socialist” and “progressive,” Harris laughed and said “no.”
“It is the perspective of a woman who grew up a black child in America, who was also a prosecutor, who also has a mother who arrived here at the age of 19 from India, who also, you know, likes hip hop,” she said.
The senator’s taste in music also came up during her own 2020 presidential bid, when she said in an interview that she listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac while smoking marijuana during college despite graduating before those artists released their debut albums.
Music culture has played a key role in this election cycle, and one of the strongest voices for criminal justice reform in the industry is Killer Mike, who worked as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The artist said he met with Harris on Friday and the two discussed cannabis business opportunities for communities of color.
Just had a meeting with Sen. Harris.
My points *Dems Need to be heavy on the door Knox’N, HR40 tweek it better and have Biden Sign, Fed Trades Programs for worker class Americans so u can build, Black men exit prison and entrance to marijuana biz as a priority for biz and jobs
— Killer Mike (@KillerMike) October 23, 2020
As she’s done repeatedly since joining Biden’s campaign, Harris also reiterated at a rally in Pontiac, Michigan on Sunday that the administration would pursue marijuana decriminalization and expunging prior cannabis convictions.
She made similar comments during a campaign event in Atlanta last week, stating that the “war on drugs was, by every measure, a failure, and black men were hit the hardest.” That said, while the senator has come to embrace broad cannabis reform, she’s faced criticism over her past opposition to legalization and role in prosecuting people for marijuana offenses as a California prosecutor.
In another interview released last week, Harris said she and Biden “have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”
“When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits,” she said.
There’s been some frustration among cannabis reform advocates that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization but has in recent weeks focused her comments on the more modest reforms of decriminalization and expungement.
Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.
In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”
In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.
GOP Tennessee Senator Calls For Medical Marijuana Legalization In New Campaign Ad
A Tennessee senator touted his support for legalizing medical marijuana in a campaign ad released on Friday.
In the 30-second spot, which has notably high production value for this kind of local race, state Sen. Steve Dickerson (R) talks about both the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and the consequences of broader marijuana criminalization.
“As your state senator, I’ve led the fight to legalize medical marijuana so our veterans and sickest Tennesseans can deal with chronic pain,” he said. “But this same life-saving plant has led to mass incarceration, with nonviolent marijuana possession resulting in lengthy prison sentences.”
It’s past time for Tennessee to legalize medical cannabis and give our sickest residents a smart, safe treatment to help with chronic pain. Legalization and securing criminal justice reform have been my top priorities, and I won’t stop fighting until we’ve changed the law. pic.twitter.com/28eFUy3loZ
— Steve Dickerson (@DickersonforS20) October 23, 2020
“I think that’s wrong. That’s why I’ve been pushing for criminal justice reform,” the senator added.
Dickerson, who sponsored a medical cannabis legalization bill that cleared a Senate committee in March, said in a Q&A published earlier this month that the policy change would be among his top three legislative priorities if he’s reelected.
His Democratic opponent, former Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell, is in favor of “fully legalizing marijuana,” with her campaign site stating that cannabis crimes “disproportionately impact people of color and it’s time to end marijuana prohibition.”
But while Dickerson has earned a reputation as a moderate Republican given his positions on issues like cannabis reform, he’s faced backlash after declining to denounce an independent ad taken out on his behalf that some, including the LGBTQ rights organization Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), called racist.
The ad, which was paid for by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s (R) political action committee MCPAC, hits Campbell over her support for a nonprofit organization that is designed to keep young people out of prison, and it frames the group as “radical” and “extremist.” TEP rescinded their endorsement of Dickerson over his refusal to condemn the ad.
In the Tennessee legislature, marijuana reform has yet to pass—but there’s growing recognition that voters are in favor of the policy change. For example, former House Speaker Glen Casada (R) released the results of a constituent survey last year that showed 73 percent of those in his district back medical cannabis legalization.
Another former GOP House speaker, Beth Harwell, highlighted her support for the reform proposal during her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018, and she referenced President Trump’s stated support for medical marijuana on the campaign trail.
In other Tennessee drug policy politics, a lawmaker in June blocked a resolution to honor murdered teen Ashanti Posey because she was allegedly involved in a low-level cannabis sale the day she was killed.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.