Biden-Sanders task force calls for an end to the war on drugs but recommends drug court interventions that will disproportionately target people of color.

When Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden established working groups to develop policy recommendations for the party’s official election platform, marijuana reform advocates were pleased he decided to include some of the campaign staff of his former rival for the candidacy, Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force represented an attempt to heal the divisions of a fraught nomination process and bring Democrats together with the shared goal of ending the Trump presidency.

Given the Biden campaign’s emphasis on unity and the misgivings many younger voters have towards the former vice president, it seemed the veteran Vermont senator’s democratic socialist staffers were well placed to convince Biden to support marijuana legalization. After all, the measure enjoys strong bipartisan support, no state which has legalized marijuana regretted doing so, and it’s a policy which especially appeals to younger people whose votes Biden so desperately needs. If ever there was a political win-win, this was it.

But it wasn’t to be.

The Biden-Sanders criminal justice task force released its recommendations last month and legalizing cannabis did not feature. There’s a lot of good stuff in there though which, if implemented, would go beyond the “hope” and “change” envisioned by former president Barack Obama. These include abolishing the death penalty, ending mandatory minimums (which Biden helped craft into law back in the 1990s) and setting strict standards on police use of force. But regarding marijuana law reforms, the task force largely adopted the position Biden has taken on the issue in the past year or so.

That’s to say, the Biden-Sanders criminal justice task recommended decriminalizing recreational cannabis use, rescheduling it, legalizing medical marijuana, expunging prior cannabis use convictions and allowing states to determine their own adult-use weed policies. If these recommendations sound familiar, perhaps it’s because you heard them in Joe Biden’s “Plan for Black America,” published in May.

While largely similar, the rhetoric in the Biden-Sanders criminal justice task force policy document is a little stronger than in Biden’s plan. It calls for an end to the “misguided and racist federal war on drugs and the systematic criminalization of poverty.” The document notes that “one in three Black men – and one in six Latino men – will spend time in jail or prison at some point in their lives” due to a non-violent drug arrest and that this can have a huge impact on that person’s ability to access housing or find a job.

All true, as detailed by the ACLU.

Instead of sending marijuana users to jail, the criminal justice task force recommends sending them to drug courts. And then, at a judge’s bidding, sending them to mandatory treatment diversion centers.

While it’s welcome news that Democrats no longer want to imprison people – most often young Black men – for nonviolent drug offenses, Biden’s drug courts plan will not end the war on drugs. It will continue the assault, largely on people of color, under a new guise.

Under Biden’s plan, marijuana possession would remain a civil offense under federal law. This means marijuana users would be profiled and targeted by law enforcement along racial lines as easily as they are now. ACLU research shows racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests persist even after cannabis reforms are enacted. After receiving a citation from a police officer to appear at a drug court, a judge may decide that marijuana user must undergo mandatory treatment. Failure to comply could result, once again, in prison time. The consequence of this, as reported by This American Life back in 1999, are treatment diversion centers disproportionately populated by black people. 

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia already allow law enforcement, family members or medical professionals to seek a person’s enrollment into a treatment diversion program without the individual’s consent. Some states also allow for this to happen without the blessing of a judge. These programs can last weeks, months, years; it’s hard to say exactly as it varies across the country considerably. What’s clear though is that under Biden’s supposed plan to end the war on drugs, more federal funding will be flowing to drug courts and treatment diversion centers to support their “increased use” whether a cited marijuana user consents to treatment or not.

To justify this use of federal funds to end the war on drugs, one might think there would be a great body of scientific literature supporting the efficacy of coercive drug courts and mandatory treatment diversion centers at reducing racial disparities in drug policing.

This isn’t the case. Rather, a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy reported potential harms and human rights abuses in treatment diversion centers with little evidence that patients/inmates benefited whatsoever. A 2017 study by Physicians for Human Rights noted drug courts are presided over by judges, not physicians, so the matter at hand is primarily one of criminal justice rather than public health. This is underscored by the fact that many treatment diversion programs are not run by medical professionals at all. The impact of involuntarily committing drug users into such settings was made clear in a 2016 report written by public health officials in Massachusetts. They found individuals coerced into participating were twice as likely to die of an opioid overdose as those who attended voluntarily.

If none of this sounds like a recipe for ending the war on drugs, it’s because it isn’t. Drug courts and

drug treatment diversion programs, if coercive, will only prolong the war on drugs because it will continue to allow law enforcement and other authority figures to take racially-biased punitive action against marijuana users. It means people of color will continue to be harassed and penalized for cannabis use at a disproportionate rate compared to white people.

Biden is clearly no fan of marijuana legalization. But he can’t refuse to end federal cannabis prohibition and also claim to support ending the war on drugs. He can’t replace criminal courts with drug courts and prisons with treatment diversion centers and then declare the war over. Only full marijuana legalization will mean we can start talking about an end to the war on drugs.

The Biden-Sanders criminal justice task force calls for an end to the war on drugs but recommends interventions that will disproportionately target people of color.

Biden can end the war on drugs or expand the use of drug courts. He can’t do both.

Image via Healthline

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