Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Monday, July 6, 2020

Is marijuana reform really a "Superweapon Biden Refuses to Use"?

EJ3gu5eWsAEdEfSThe question in the title of this post is drawn from the headline of this great new Atlantic piece by Edward-Isaac Dovere fully titled "The Marijuana Superweapon Biden Refuses to Use: Legalizing marijuana is extremely popular. So why won’t Joe Biden embrace the idea?".  Here are extended excerpts from an interesting piece worth reading in full:

Democratic political consultants dream of issues like marijuana legalization. Democrats are overwhelmingly in favor of it, polls show.  So are independents. A majority of Republicans favor it now too. It motivates progressives, young people, and Black Americans to vote. Put it on the ballot, and it’s proved a sure way to boost turnout for supportive politicians. It’s popular in key presidential-election states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida, Arizona, and Virginia. There’s no clear political downside — although marijuana legalization motivates its supporters, it doesn’t motivate its opponents. For the Democratic presidential nominee, the upsides of supporting it would include energizing a very committed group of single-issue voters and making a major move toward criminal-justice reform and the Bernie Sanders agenda.

Joe Biden won’t inhale.

Democrats eager for Biden to support legalization have theories about why he won’t.  His aides insist they’re all wrong.  It’s not, they say, because he’s from a generation scared by Reefer Madness. It’s not, they say, because he spent a career in Washington pushing for mandatory minimum sentencing and other changes to drug laws.  It’s definitely not, according to people who have discussed the policy with him, because he’s a teetotaler whose father battled alcoholism and whose son has fought addiction, and who’s had gateway-drug anxieties drilled into him.  With legalization seeming such an obvious political win, all that’s stopping Biden, current and former aides say, is public health.  He’s read the studies, or at least, summaries of the studies (campaign aides pointed me to this one).  He wants to see more.  He’s looking for something definitive to assure him that legalizing won’t lead to serious mental or physical problems, in teens or adults....

If Biden really has his eyes on public health, he should think about how many Black people end up in jail for marijuana sale and possession, argues Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba — a young Black progressive who oversaw local decriminalization in his city in 2018....  Alternatively, John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, says Biden should think about how legalization could raise tax revenue in the post-pandemic economy of state budget deficits....

Amid the criticism that Biden hasn’t taken a definitive stance on legalization, it’s easy to lose track of how far ahead he is of any other major-party presidential nominee in history in terms of changing marijuana policy.  He’d decriminalize use, which would mean fines instead of jail time, and move to expunge records for using.  He’d remove federal enforcement in states that have legalized the drug.  That’s further, by far, than Donald Trump, or Barack Obama, has gone.  Biden would move marijuana off as a Schedule 1 narcotic, the same category as heroin, but would not take it off the illegal-drugs schedule entirely, so that federal law would treat it the way it does alcohol or nicotine....

“As science ends up with more conclusive evidence regarding the impact of marijuana, I think he would look at that data. But he’s being asked to make a decision right now. This is where the science guides him,” Stef Feldman, Biden’s policy director, explained to me....  There isn’t some conclusive study about health effects that Biden is ignoring, but one is also not likely to emerge anytime soon.  And though they insist this is all about health, other ripples from legalization are on the minds of institutionalists like Biden and his close advisers: trade deals that require both sides to keep marijuana illegal would have to be rewritten, half a century of American pressure on other countries about their drug policies would be reversed, and hard-line police unions would have to be convinced that he wasn’t just giving in to stoners. 

Realistically, marijuana isn’t a priority right now for the campaign.  Legalization is at once too small an issue for Biden’s tiny team to focus on and too large an issue to take a stand on without fuller vetting.  And it comes with a frustration among people close to Biden, who point out that liberals talk about trusting science on everything from climate change to wearing masks — and, notably, wanted vaping restricted because the health effects were unclear — but are willing to let that standard slide here because they want marijuana to be legal.

Biden’s compromise: going right to the edge of legalization, while appointing a criminal-justice task force for his campaign whose members have each supported at least some approach to legalization.  But that sort of signaling doesn’t get people to the polls.  “Being cute is fine. Being bold is motivating,” Ben Wessel, the director of NextGen America, a group focused on boosting political involvement among younger voters, told me.

“If Biden said he wants to legalize marijuana tomorrow, it would help him get reluctant young voters off the fence and come home to vote for Biden — especially Bernie [Sanders] supporters, especially young people of color who have been screwed by a criminal-justice system that treats them unfairly on marijuana issues,” Wessel told me.  Publicly supporting marijuana legalization would be an easy, attention-grabbing move, and might help many Sanders diehards get past the fact that he’s not where they want him to be on the rest of their candidate’s democratic-socialist agenda. 

In 2018, top Democrats credited a legalization ballot initiative in Michigan with boosting turnout and producing the biggest blue wave in the country — winning races for governor, Senate, attorney general, and secretary of state, along with flipping two congressional seats and multiple state-legislature seats.  A ballot initiative is expected for the fall in Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota, and possibly Montana.  Anyone who believes — hopefully, or out of cynical political calculation — that Biden will announce some big change in his thinking, aides told me, will be disappointed. 

I really like lots of aspects of this commentary, and I generally believe support for marijuana reform is a sound and significant political strategy these days.  But, as this piece highlights, when Biden's opponent is Donald Trump, it will still be easy for Biden to claim to be the most reform-minded candidate.  And while support for full legalization might attract younger voters, it also will attract hard questions about whether Biden would support legalizing other drugs.  By saying he will follow the research and the science, Biden can appear both wise and flexible on an issue that can still generate more heat than light.

Moreover, I think the political calculations can be a bit more nuanced here if one thinks about swing states and swing voters.  A number of potential swing states, ranging from Georgia and North Carolina to Iowa and Ohio and Wisconsin (and Texas?), are not states with a track record of significant voter support for full marijuana legalization.  Perhaps even more importantly, key voting blocks like suburban women and older white men are the populations that have generally been most resistant to marijuana reforms.   Though I still think support for major marijuana reforms would be a political plus for Biden, I do not think it is obviously a "superweapon" being left on the sidelines.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/marijuana_law/2020/07/the-marijuana-superweapon-biden-refuses-to-use.html

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