Thursday June 18, 2020
By Paul Barach
After a presidential candidate primary process that seemed to both take forever and also seems like it happened years ago, former Vice President Joe Biden will accept the Democratic Party nominee for the 2020 election. He has put out a wide ranging policy platform of laws, plans, and programs that he will push to enact if elected the 46th president of the United States. As some media outlets have noticed, inside a plan titled Lift Every Voice: The Biden Plan for Black America is a plan to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level.
Under the subhead “Strengthen America’s Commitment to Justice,” the new policy states that Biden will "decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions, and end all incarceration for drug use alone and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment.”
So what does all this mean? What is decriminalization and how is it different from legalization? What else is included in the plan and what would it mean if this plan was enacted? Why is Biden going with a half-measure rather than the much more sensible and popular step of full legalization?
Joe Biden’s Plan for Cannabis Decriminalization
As defined by National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) “...decriminalization means no arrest, prison time, or criminal record for the first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal consumption.”
So, essentially possession of cannabis in a prohibition state would go from being a state and federal crime to being considered about as serious as a minor traffic violation. The police and the legal system would be unable to throw anyone in jail for possession of weed. That is, unless the police could prove that someone was selling it or possessing above the set decriminalized amount.
Legalization, on the other hand, means that the sale, consumption, and possession of cannabis through government regulated means carries no legal penalty at all. Also included in Biden’s plan is expunging everyone’s criminal record for pot possession as well as ending incarceration for drug use. It’s unclear if this means freeing everyone already in jail for possession or simply clearing the records of those who’ve already served their time.
Finally, cannabis will be downgraded from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 2 drug. Currently pot is listed as Schedule 1, which means it has "no currently accepted medical use" as well as a "high potential for abuse" like Heroin.
Being reclassified as Schedule 2 means that cannabis still has a "high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence," but it also may have some medical uses. This would allow for federal funding of marijuana research and its countless health benefits. Of course, these are all small reforms that no one seems to be fully happy with.
Is Decriminalization Enough?
As Jason Ortiz, the president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association said “Considering the long violent history of the United States war on communities color, this plan is a half measure at best...True equity for our communities would include an admission that our federal government committed a massive crime through the war on drugs, and a plan to undue that damage and make our communities whole.”
Ortiz also added that “True equity must include a release of all cannabis prisoners, massive community investment and a legal cannabis marketplace owned and operated primarily by people of color,”
So why not full legalization? While there could be many reasons, the political reason is that Biden is a centrist Democrat who’s trying to put forward a centrist policy that won’t drive anti-marijuana voters or donors away. There’s also the fact that Biden is running for the presidency, which means trying to get support from voters in all 50 states. While 2/3rds of Americans want legalization, that breakdown isn’t the same for every state and there’s still a lot of stigma around marijuana. Biden also has only recently changed his regressive stance on cannabis that he held for most of his career.
There is a long way to go before there can be true equity in marijuana. Black people are still four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white consumers, despite similar rates in use. Minority ownership of cannabis businesses is a sliver of the overall percentage, and the economic and social damages from the war on drugs in minority neighborhoods is incalculable.
However, bolder policies require voters who support those policies to send in their ballots and go to the polls. The candidates with more progressive marijuana policies didn’t receive nearly the turnout, especially from young voters.
Will Joe Biden Support Legalization if Elected President?
It’s important to note that Joe Biden has put forward this plan as a candidate for president. If elected, Biden could be convinced to support full legalization later in his administration. Especially if he picks a pro-cannabis legalization vice president such as Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, or Stacy Abrams.
It’s also worth noting that decriminalization is usually the first step towards full recreational legalization. Oregon decriminalized cannabis in 1973 and 11 states followed suit, including Washington, Colorado, and California which all now allow recreational cannabis sales.
The push for full federal legalization will most likely follow the same path as did other formerly radical social movements such as the push for gay marriage during the Obama administration. Same-sex marriage laws kept being passed in state after state as people realized how backwards the original law was and a new, more accepting generation began to vote in greater numbers. Cannabis legalization is currently following that same path, and has the extra push of not simply social fairness, but a lot of money to be made.
The bottom line is that Joe Biden may not yet support the full federal legalization that America needs, but he’s not standing in opposition to it either as the current administration is. As many will have to accept about Joe Biden and his platform, it may not be exciting or inspiring, but a half-step in the right direction still counts as some progress.
What are your thoughts on the decriminalization of cannabis as opposed to legalization? Share them in the comments below.