For years, former Vice President Joe Biden was one of the most vocal supporters of America's War on Drugs. Now the frontrunner for the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nomination has finally come around to the idea of federal cannabis reform.
"No one should be incarcerated for drug use alone," reads a statement on Biden's campaign website that was posted yesterday. "Instead, they should be diverted to drug courts and treatment. Reducing the number of incarcerated individuals will reduce federal spending on incarceration. These savings should be reinvested in the communities impacted by mass incarceration."
That stance is a huge 180 for a man who is often regarded as one of the architects of the War on Drugs. During his 35+ years as a US senator from Delaware, Biden helped write and pass laws that imposed harsh penalties on people convicted of non-violent drug offenses. Now he's trying to undo many of those harmful laws by advocating decriminaliation.
Under his new policy - the 'Plan for Strengthening America's Commitment to Justice' - Biden has pledged to not only decriminalize cannabis but also change marijuana's status in the Controlled Substances Act. Right now, cannabis is listed alongside heroin and LSD as a Schedule I drug, which means the federal government defines it as a dangerous drug that has no medical use. Under Biden's plan, cannabis would be reclassified as a Schedule II drug, which would not make marijuana a legal substance, but it would open the door for the FDA to recognize cannabis as medicine.
This move would also greatly improve the ability of researchers to "study [marijuana's] positive and negative impacts." Right now, cannabis research is incredibly difficult to conduct in America because of the plant's Schedule I status. To study a Schedule I drug, researchers need to complete plough through piles of paperwork just to get access to the highly restricted substance. Reclassifying cannabis as a Schedule II drug would significantly reduce the red tape involved in researching it.
Biden's plan would also eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing for certain drug offenses and allow some federal cannabis convictions to be automatically expunged. As president, Biden would grant clemency to certain non-violent and drug offenders serving particularly excessive incarceration terms.
The vice president's plan would not legalize cannabis outright, but it would "support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes." It would also allow individual states to make their own decisions about recreational cannabis. So the feds wouldn't try to crack down on the 11 states that have legalized recreational use.
Seeing Biden embrace marijuana reform is encouraging. His new campaign pledge means that all the frontrunners for the 2020 presidential nomination support some form of marijuana reform. But the biggest fan of the policy change is arguably the former vice president himself.
"I believe my criminal justice reform package is as strong or stronger than anyone else," Biden said.
That's a highly contentious statement since rival candidates like Senators Cory Booker (NJ) and Kamala Harris (CA) have put forth separate cannabis bills that are much more progressive than Biden's pitch, especially in terms of promoting social justice. While some will hail Biden's about-face on cannabis reform as a huge win for the legalization movement, others will undoubtedly criticize his policy as a watered-down version of his rivals' plans.
And one rival has already launched an attack on Biden's new stance on cannabis. Senator Booker is encouraging voters to review Biden's past before buying into his cannabis plan.
Ultimately, Biden's cannabis policy might not be as progressive as the plans proposed by rivals, but his change of heart on the matter is still significant. It shows that even the most anti-cannabis lawmakers have finally realized that voters want to overhaul America's failed drug war.