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Former Drug Warrior Biden Unveils Cannabis Decriminalization Plan

July 23, 2019
In the '80s and '90s he helped lock them up. Now Joe Biden wants to help end mass incarceration. (AP, Leafly)
In the '80s and '90s he helped lock them up. Now Joe Biden wants to help end mass incarceration. (AP, Leafly)
Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden tacked away from his drug warrior past with a new plan Tuesday. He wants to reduce mass incarceration in the US with a 10-page proposal including: decriminalization of cannabis, $20 billion in prevention funds for communities, efforts to reduce racial profiling by police, more job training in prisons, ending private prisons, and other proposals.

“I believe my criminal justice reform package is as strong or stronger than anyone else.”
Joe Biden, former vice president, Democratic presidential candidate

“Today, too many people are incarcerated in the United States–and too many of them are black and brown,” Biden’s team said in a post to his campaign website on Tuesday. “To build safe and healthy communities, we need to rethink who we’re sending to jail, how we treat those in jail, and how we help them get the health care, education, jobs, and housing they need to successfully rejoin society after they serve their time.”

According to FBI reports, cannabis is a key driver of mass incarceration—marijuana arrests are the number one type of drug arrest in the US, and drug arrests are the number one type of arrest police make. Former Vice President Biden’s cannabis decriminalization would come with automatic expungements of past marijuana records, support for federal medical legalization, and a downgrade of cannabis to Schedule II, “so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.”

As for adult-use federal legalization, Biden echoed President Trump’s position in recent years, stating he would, “leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states.”

Critics Pounce on Biden’s Past Votes

Facing another debate with Sen. Kamala Harris next week, Biden’s “Plan for Strengthening America’s Commitment to Justice” proposals move the vice president away from his historically tough-on-crime policies, for which he is being attacked from both the right and the left.

Biden joined with many Democrats, Republicans, and minority leaders in the ’80s and ’90s to enact harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug use, three-strikes laws with life sentences, civil asset forfeiture, and the death penalty for drug-related murders. GOP critics note Biden once claimed George H.W. Bush’s war on drugs was “not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough.”

While former President Bill Clinton has apologized for crime policies that “made the problem worse,” Biden responded by saying the 1994 crime bill he led was “another part of my long record that is being grossly misrepresented.”

He made no apologies for past votes Tuesday. “I believe my criminal justice reform package is as strong or stronger than anyone else,” Biden said in a video.

Sen. Cory Booker reacted to Biden’s Tuesday proposal with a tweet: “It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years. You created this system. We’ll dismantle it.”

An Important Evolution Nonetheless

Biden’s proposals amplify the reach of once-radical ideas into mainstream political thought, though. The laundry list of ideas includes ending cash bail, a proposal California enacted in 2018 but put on hold pending a 2020 referendum sponsored by the bail industry.

Biden’s campaign notes the cash bail system is “the modern day debtors’ prison. The cash bail system incarcerates people who are presumed innocent. And, it disproportionately harms low income individuals.”

Biden’s plan also would create universal pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year-olds, because “focusing on addressing [mass incarceration’s] underlying factors is not just the right thing to do, it is also good for our communities and our economy.”

Biden would also work to reduce the jailing of children through grants for diversion programs. San Francisco intends to close its juvenile hall by the end of 2021, citing high costs, low use, and incarceration’s irreparable harm to youth.

The former vice president faces off against Harris and other Democratic primary contenders in a televised debate in Detroit Wed., July 31.

David Downs's Bio Image

David Downs

David Downs directs news and lifestyle coverage as the California Bureau Chief for Leafly.com. He's written for WIRED, Rolling Stone and Billboard, and is the former cannabis editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as the author of several cannabis books including 'Marijuana Harvest' by Ed Rosenthal and David Downs. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. TW: @davidrdowns | IG @daviddowns

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  • jontomas

    Biden is clearly a core member of the corrupt, corporate Democrats, like the Clintons and Obama. He would be the LAST candidate I would vote for in the primary.

    But, the corrupt Democrats may succeed in cramming him down our throats like they almost did with Hillary, so we have to pay attention to his “policies.”

    Decriminalization and moving marijuana to Schedule 2 are such milk toast “improvements,” they belong in the last century. – Biden tries to make a big deal out of them by saying “No consumers will go to prison for marijuana!”

    Big deal. — Almost none go to prison now for it. — Prison is not the worst harm of the fraudulently enacted, marijuana prohibition. Science and widespread experience have shown marijuana is not addictive and is far less harmful than alcohol. – Yet, more than 600,000 innocent Americans are arrested for simple marijuana possession each year and made second-class citizens – for life!

    They will forever face large obstacles to decent employment, education, travel, housing, government benefits, and will always go into court with one strike against them. They can even have their children taken away!

    25 million Americans are now locked away in this very un-American sub-class because of this bogus “criminal” record. That has a horrible effect on the whole country, being a massive waste of human potential.

    The fraudulent marijuana prohibition has never accomplished one positive thing. It has only caused vast amounts of crime, corruption, violence, death and the severe diminishing of everyone’s freedom.

    There is no more important domestic issue than ending what is essentially the American Inquisition.

    At this point in time, in this stage of marijuana reform, and considering most candidates stand for complete re-legalization, Biden gets a fail. It’s WAY too little, WAY too late.

    • Random_Man

      If it’s him or trumpo Biden gets my vote.

  • saynotohypocrisy

    Biden proposes a downgrade of cannabis to Schedule II, where it would still be considered as dangerous ascocaine and opiates.
    He’s still playing the stinking alcohol supremacist bigot, happy to dictate to the clear majority that wants cannabis legalized.
    I’ve been a third class citizen for 50 years because of wildly hypocritical pigs like Biden. Enough already!

  • saynotohypocrisy

    Biden proposes a downgrade of cannabis to Schedule II, where it would still be considered as dangerous as cocaine and opiates.
    He’s still playing the stinking alcohol supremacist bigot, happy to dictate to the clear majority that wants cannabis legalized.
    I’ve been a third class citizen for 50 years because of wildly hypocritical p*gs like Biden. Enough already!

  • saynotohypocrisy

    whatever

  • jokergallagher

    What a loser, he is so out of touch with what the people want.

  • Thanks to jontomas for the work . All that’s left to say is that only the most gullible and politically inexperienced would take this guy’s word for anything.