Last week, 2020 frontrunner Joe Biden inspired a great deal of outrage when he said at a Las Vegas event he wasn’t sure if weed should be legalized nationally. “There’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” he told a crowd at a campaign stop. In a call with reporters on Monday, he revised his position in classic Biden style: a bit huffily, and in a way that implied his critics were actually wrong.
In response to a question from Nevada Independent reporter Megan Messerly about the criticism he got, Biden first said that he didn’t claim pot was a gateway drug, just that “some say” it is (this is not quite what he said). He then emphasized that he wanted to move cannabis policy in a more progressive direction: “First of all it should be totally decriminalized, number one. Number two, anyone who has been convicted of an offense or using pot, their record should be wiped totally clean.” He went on to describe his hesitance to fully legalize the drug:
With regard to the total legalization of it, there are some in the medical community who say it needs to be made a Schedule II drug so there can be research studies, as not whether it is a gateway drug but whether or not it, when used in other combinations, may have a negative impact on people overcoming other problems, including in fact on young people in terms of brain development—a whole range of things that are beyond my expertise. There are serious medical folks who say we should study it more. Not that we should make it illegal, that we should be in a position where we criminalize it but that we should look at it.
This isn’t the first time Joe Biden has had to clean up something Joe Biden has said—in June he had to reverse his support for a federal ban on funding abortions after widespread criticism—but in this case it’s very helpful to have him spell out his position. It makes clear that he’s not especially progressive when it comes to weed.
Biden is far from the only one concerned about cannabis’s effects on the developing brain, and everyone agrees it should continue to be studied. But there’s evidence that alcohol also damages the brain development of young people, too. That fact doesn’t necessarily mean weed should be illegal. Meanwhile, Biden’s half-measure of decriminalization and rescheduling may lead to other problems. Cannabis’s current status as legal in some states but not under federal law makes regulating it complicated, and has frozen many weed merchants out of the banking system. When he suggests making marijuana a Schedule II drug, he’s talking about putting it under the control of the Food and Drug Administration, which could risk destroying the legal cannabis industry.
The full federal legalization of weed could help stitch together the confusing patchwork of cannabis laws, raise tax revenue, and if done properly, begin a process of repairing some of the damage done by a decades-long racist war on drugs. That’s why many 2020 candidates, including Cory Booker, who has arguably led the way on the issue, have been talking about it for years. It’s good that Biden made it clear weed isn’t a gateway drug—it’s the literal least he could do—but the whole episode shows that voters in favor of legalizing weed should look elsewhere.
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