During the Democratic primaries, advocates of cannabis legalization widely believed Joe Biden to be the worst in the field when it came to pot policy. It was a big deal when he finally came out for decriminalization, but that got applause only because for most of his life he’s been a strong advocate of prohibition, and at times, a vociferous drug warrior. At the time of his “awakening,” the Democratic platform was calling for full legalization. He thought that went too far. And weighing in on the benefits of medical marijuana, he said there’s “got to be a better answer than marijuana,” and called for more “humane” treatments for pain. He didn’t explain what was inhumane about cannabis; nor did he say why there had to be a better answer. It’s easy to imagine that he was simply picturing hippies and street-corner ne’er-do-wells and thinking, “That ain’t me, man.”
His newly named running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, has had a similar, but more substantive change of heart. As the San Francisco District Attorney and as the California Attorney General, she supported medical pot, but opposed full legalization, or at least treated the issue with skepticism (“selling drugs hurts communities” she said at one point). Once she had her sights on winning national office, she got on board with removing pot’s Schedule 1 status, which puts it in the same legal category as heroin. It’s easy, and maybe even accurate, to call this politically motivated flip-flopping, or even hypocrisy. But another way to put it is that she listened to her potential constituents and changed her mind. Either way, the elevation of Harris to the national ticket has elicited a collective sigh of relief to worried legalization advocates.
That’s largely because when Harris flipped, she flipped big. A year ago, she introduced legislation to decriminalize weed. The MORE Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The MORE (Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement) Act languished in committee, but is now set for a September floor vote. The bill would remove pot’s Schedule 1 designation and require the expungement of cannabis convictions from criminal records. It wouldn’t be full legalization, but it would remove many of the restrictions on the pot business, and it would likely serve as a stepping stone to ending federal prohibition entirely.
The chances of passage by the House look pretty good. Sadly, that’s not true of the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Mike Crapo, of Idaho, who chairs the Banking Committee, have stymied cannabis legislation, such as a proposed law that would have protected federally chartered banks from liability for doing business with cannabis companies. This, despite the fact that support in Congress for either legalization or decriminalization is bipartisan.
A victory in the House, however, would be a huge milestone on the road to legalization, which most observers think inevitable in the next few years, given growing public support and given that, one by one, states are legalizing.
The question now is: assuming a Biden victory, what happens when a bill to legalize comes to Biden’s desk for signature or veto? And what if it’s a bill sponsored by his vice president?
Just 10 years ago, Biden was still referring to pot as a “gateway drug.” This notion—that pot “leads” people to other, harder drugs, had already been debunked for years.
Last December, during a town-hall event in Las Vegas, he said, “there’s not nearly been enough evidence” for him to decide whether pot is a “gateway drug” or not. “It’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally.”
But days later, he denied having said what he said. When confronted with his statement, he said: “I didn’t. I said some say pot was a gateway drug.” And he added flatly, “I don’t think it is a gateway drug. There’s no evidence I’ve seen to suggest that.”
So, what would he do with a legalization bill? The odds are: