With legalization seeming such an obvious political win, all that’s stopping Biden, current and former aides say, is public health. He’s read the studies, or at least, summaries of the studies (campaign aides pointed me to this one). He wants to see more. He’s looking for something definitive to assure him that legalizing won’t lead to serious mental or physical problems, in teens or adults.
America appears to be moving on without him, and so are the future leaders of his party.
If Biden really has his eyes on public health, he should think about how many Black people end up in jail for marijuana sale and possession, argues Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba—a young Black progressive who oversaw local decriminalization in his city in 2018. Biden should also think about how an illicit, unregulated market is leading to the drug being laced with other chemicals, and the health effects of that, Lumumba told me. If Biden thinks marijuana is addictive, he said, then he should explain what makes it worse than alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. Legalization is a necessary part of criminal-justice reform, Lumumba said. “I would encourage him and his campaign more broadly to do more research on some of the finer points,” he added.
Alternatively, John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, says Biden should think about how legalization could raise tax revenue in the post-pandemic economy of state budget deficits. “What better time than now to have that conversation?” Fetterman told me. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Fetterman spent a year traveling his state, including areas that mostly voted for Trump in 2016, proselytizing “commonsense” legalization. There’s even more reason to agree with him now, he said. “It’s the ultimate policy and financial low-hanging fruit,” he said. “If you’re not moved by the gross racial disparities, what state doesn’t need a couple hundred million more in revenue at this point?”
Read: America’s invisible pot addicts
Amid the criticism that Biden hasn’t taken a definitive stance on legalization, it’s easy to lose track of how far ahead he is of any other major-party presidential nominee in history in terms of changing marijuana policy. He’d decriminalize use, which would mean fines instead of jail time, and move to expunge records for using. He’d remove federal enforcement in states that have legalized the drug. That’s further, by far, than Donald Trump, or Barack Obama, has gone. Biden would move marijuana off as a Schedule 1 narcotic, the same category as heroin, but would not take it off the illegal-drugs schedule entirely, so that federal law would treat it the way it does alcohol or nicotine.
John Morgan, a Florida Biden donor and a major proponent of legalization in his state, is a proud user of marijuana, and told me he knows many Democrats and Republicans who are too. He’s been able to get Ron DeSantis, his state’s Republican governor and a big Trump ally, on board with legalization. Morgan said that when he broached the issue briefly with Biden last year ahead of hosting a fundraiser for him, the candidate responded, “‘I know where you are on this.’ I just took it to be as You know where I am on this.”