Former Vice President Joe Biden (D) won't be following fellow 2020 presidential hopefuls like Cory Booker in calling for the full legalization of cannabis on the federal level. But he has at least acknowledged that people should not be locked up for consuming marijuana.
"Nobody should be in jail for smoking marijuana," Biden told voters in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
The statement is a significant policy shift for Biden, who was one of the central figures behind the War on Drugs in the 80s and 90s, when he wrote legislation that has led to overcrowded prisons, where many inmates are serving extremely harsh sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Now Biden is changing his stance to reflect the public's appetite for drug reform. And he's not the only 2020 hopeful that's taking a progressive stance on cannabis: nearly every other candidate for the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nomination has made marijuana reform part of their platform to some degree.
But Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates clarified that the candidate's commitment to reform won't go as far as supporting cannabis legalization at the federal level. Instead, Bates said Biden, if elected, would focus on reducing criminal penalties for smoking cannabis.
"As he said, Vice President Biden does not believe anyone should be in jail simply for smoking or possessing marijuana. He supports decriminalizing marijuana and automatically expunging prior criminal records for marijuana possession, so those affected don't have to figure out how to petition for it or pay for a lawyer," Bates told CNN.
"He would allow states to continue to make their own choices regarding legalization and would seek to make it easier to conduct research on marijuana's positive and negative health impacts by rescheduling it as a Schedule II drug," he added.
So, under a Biden presidency individual states could rest easy knowing that they won't be prosecuted for legalizing marijuana, researching the substance could become a bit easier and people could see minor cannabis convictions wiped from their records. That approach is much similar to the cautious approach to marijuana reform that Hillary Clinton touted on the campaign trail in 2016. Dropping cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug would open the door to recognizing marijuana as medicine, but it wouldn't end marijuana prohibition across America. Schedule II drugs include cocaine and fentanyl, so the reclassification means that cannabis would still be treated as a dangerous substance by the feds.
While cannabis advocates might find Biden's stance underwhelming, his position is nevertheless an important step forward for marijuana reform, even if it is just a baby-step on the path to progress.