With Joe Biden projected to have won the US presidential election, change is now afoot in the White House. The Democrats, who are generally favourable to marijuana reform, have regained executive control, although it must be said that the new Commander-in-Chief’s record on cannabis is pretty patchy.
Heading into the election, Biden made a campaign promise to change federal marijuana laws, yet his proposals fall short of the kind of legalisation that most of his party’s senior figures support. Still, it’s been quite a journey for this once staunch prohibitionist to reach this point, and hopes are high that his position on cannabis will continue to evolve once he enters the Oval Office.
The 1980s – Not Good.
The 80s were a terrible decade in many ways, with hairstyles and drug policy being among the main train wrecks of the era. As a senator, Biden opted for a somewhat questionable comb-over and an even more dubious stance on drugs. In an era defined by Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign, Biden positioned himself as one of the toughest drug warriors in Washington.
In his defence, this was a popular stance at the time, and it was the Republicans’ promise to crack down on drugs that delivered them the White House in several consecutive elections. Still, Biden went further than most, introducing draconian anti-narcotics acts in 1986 and 1989, while publicly voicing his support for the death penalty for major drug dealers.
The 1990s – Still Pretty Terrible
When the Democrats finally returned to the White House following Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, party officials were keen to show that they could be as tough as the Republicans. This resulted in the passing of the notorious Crime Bill of 1994, which introduced harsh prison sentences for minor drug offenses and is often cited as the main reason for mass-incarceration in America. The author of that bill was one Joseph Biden, although he, like Clinton, has since expressed his regret at passing the legislation, labelling it a “mistake”.
Towards the end of the 90s the notion of medical marijuana started to become a talking point, with certain states allowing doctors to prescribe cannabis to their patients for the first time. In response, Biden co-sponsored a resolution that affirmed Congress’s opposition to medical cannabis, stating his support for a continuation of prohibition at both the federal and state levels.
From Vice President To The Campaign Trail – Much Better
As Obama’s vice president, Biden started to fall in line with the Democratic Party’s support for cannabis reform. This culminated in the Justice Department issuing of a memo instructing law enforcement not to prioritise marijuana possession in certain states.
During his run for this year’s presidency, Biden said that he now supports the decriminalisation of recreational cannabis and the expungement of all prior cannabis convictions, as well as the legalisation of medical marijuana. However, he has refused to back full legalisation of recreational cannabis at the federal level, saying he wants to see more evidence regarding safety.
Clearly, then, he’s come a long way since the 1980s, although the reality is that he still lags behind the rest of his party when it comes to marijuana. During the primaries, the majority of his competitors in the race to become the Democratic candidate supported full legalisation and the removal of cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. Biden, meanwhile, says he only wants to see marijuana downgraded from Schedule I to Schedule II, which would enable more scientific research on the plant but wouldn’t achieve much more.
There is hope, however, in the form of his vice president Kamala Harris, who last year became the lead sponsor of the MORE Act, which would fully legalise recreational cannabis at the federal level. Interestingly, Harris also has a somewhat inconsistent record when it comes to marijuana, having previously come down hard on low-level cannabis offenses during her time as California’s attorney general.
Her switch to all-out support for legalisation mirrors the party line, which is a clear response to the overwhelming support for cannabis reform among voters. The fact that every proposal to relax marijuana laws passed with a massive majority on election day proves just how much the American people want to see the plant set free from prohibition.
Whether or not this happens, however, is more likely to depend on the Senate than the new president. In recent years, the Republicans have controlled the chamber and have firmly blocked any possibility of cannabis reform. If the Democrats can secure a majority here, however, then the coming years could see a major shift in the country’s marijuana laws.
With the two parties currently neck-and-neck in terms of seats, control of the Senate could rest on the two seats in the state of Georgia, which are set to go to a run-off in January.
Taken together, all of this makes it pretty hard to tell exactly what the next four years have in store for cannabis reform, although there’s certainly a lot of cause for hope that the new administration might just open the door to full legalisation.