Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ended his campaign for the nomination earlier this month, announced plans to form joint working groups charged with developing policy proposals on a range of issues in order to help bridge the party’s divisions. Will marijuana legalization be a part of these discussions?
For now, that remains unclear, though when pressed during an interview on CBS This Morning, Sanders did not include marijuana legalization, or criminal justice reform more generally, as one of the policy proposals or key areas he thinks “could be part of a Biden administration.”
Instead, the Vermont senator said he believes Biden will take action on climate change as well as education and healthcare reform, though not to the extent he would have as the Democratic nominee.
After dropping out of the race, Sanders moved quickly to endorse Biden in the hope of shoring up and mobilizing the Democratic vote to defeat President Trump in the November elections. But many Bernie Sanders supporters, especially young people, are not convinced by former Vice President Joe Biden’s record as a senator or under the Obama administration.
To that end, a coalition of young voters wrote a letter to the presumptive nominee asking him not to “return to normalcy” as Biden has previously promised. Instead, they urged him “to champion the bold ideas that have galvanized our generation and given us hope in the political process,” including marijuana legalization.
“End the War on Drugs and support the equitable legalization of marijuana based on proposals laid out by Senator Booker, Senator Warren, Senator Sanders, Secretary Castro, and others,” the group’s letter reads.
The establishment of joint working groups was announced at a livestream event which sought to bring Sander’s supporters and their policy preferences into the fold of Biden’s presidential campaign. While details are scarce, there will be six working groups focused broadly on criminal justice reform, the economy, education, climate, health care and immigration.
“It’s no great secret out there, Joe, that you and I have our differences,” Sanders said. “We’re not going to paper them over, that’s real, but I hope that these task forces will come together, utilizing the best minds and people in your campaign and in my campaign to work out real solutions.”
Biden stressed those differences are largely over how to go about achieving the same goals.
“I know we share the same goals on many of these things. We’ve had different ideas about how to accomplish them, but on some issues we’re going to continue to disagree respectfully, but not in any substantive way,” Biden said during the livestream event. “I believe there’s a great opportunity—a great opportunity to work together to deploy policy approaches that can take us closer to our shared goals.”
Though with regards to marijuana legalization, the two veteran politicians clearly have different goals in mind. Sanders pledged to legalize cannabis through executive action on his first day in office. Biden, on the other hand, stops short of full legalization in favor of various reforms. This includes legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing cannabis possession, minor federal rescheduling, and expunging prior marijuana convictions, whilst letting states determine their own policies. At the same time, Biden has sent mixed signals during the nomination process. He referred to cannabis as a “gateway drug” before backtracking and indicated that he thinks cannabis possession should remain a misdemeanor, though now seems to have moved away from this position.
During the livestream event, Biden briefly discussed criminal justice and drug policy issues, stressing the importance of “reform, not punishment.”
Biden said, “[T]he idea that we continue to think that the way to deal with the criminal justice system now that we know so much and have learned so much is to punish instead of rehabilitate, the idea that we put someone in jail for drug abuse and we don’t put them in a mandatory rehabilitation as opposed to prison” is also wrong.
Many drug policy reform advocates would point to Biden’s preference for mandatory rehabilitation, imposed by drug courts. as proof that his stance on the issue has not evolved as much as he would like Democratic voters to believe. That is, he continues to see drug abuse through the lens of criminality rather than as a health issue, just as he did as a senator in the 1990s championing the anti-drug laws which helped create America’s mass incarceration prison system. Biden’s voter support deficit among younger people is mirrored in polls which find support for marijuana legalization is overwhelmingly high at 88 percent among those aged 18-29, while this only drops to 71 percent among 30-49 year olds. As Biden’s campaign team gears up for full election mode to oust Donald Trump from the White House, it appears that a shift in support to full cannabis legalization could be low-hanging fruit, given the issue enjoys majority support across America, that would only help his chances among younger voters.