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.