With the fifth round of presidential debates days away, one candidate emerged from the pack of Democratic contenders over the weekend ー but likely not in the way he would have hoped. Vice President Joe Biden further elucidated his take on cannabis legalization Saturday at a town hall in Las Vegas, and it’s decidedly out of step, not only with the of the rest of his colleagues, but with the viewpoints of many Democratic voters.
“The truth of the matter is, there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug. It’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally. I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it," Biden said during the event, as recorded by Fox News. "It is not irrational to do more scientific investigation to determine ー which we have not done significantly enough ー whether or not there are any things that relate to whether it's a gateway drug or not."
Backlash against Biden’s use of the term “gateway drug,” which hearkens back to 1980s anti-drug messaging, was swift. Major media organizations ran with the story, Twitter lit up with critics calling Biden “out of touch,” and threatening that he’d lost their vote. Some even used the hashtag #OKBiden ー a play on the #OKBoomer hashtag that has gone viral in recent weeks.
According to John Hudak, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, his critics aren’t wrong.
“Vice President Biden is woefully out of step with, not only his party, but with the American public on this issue. America has moved far past the war on drugs ー the war on drugs the former vice president helped prosecute as a senator. And the vice president hasn’t gotten in-step with his party yet,” Hudak said.
According to a new survey from Pew Research, the number of Americans in support of some form of cannabis legalization is only rising. Some two-thirds of Americans say cannabis should be legal ー with only about 32 percent opposed. Meanwhile an overwhelming 91 percent of Americans think recreational and medical cannabis or just medical cannabis should be legalized.
The idea of cannabis as a gateway drug, implying that cannabis users are more likely to get into harder substances, like cocaine, after trying cannabis, has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Some research suggests a correlation between cannabis use and the use of harder drugs, but the National Institute on Drug Abuse says that nicotine and alcohol similarly prime the brain for a heightened response to harder drugs and that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.'”
“There’s good research out there that suggests that cannabis is not the gateway drug, it’s the cannabis dealer that provides the gateway,” Hudak said. “It’s more of a sociological, rather than a biological or a chemical gateway. And of course legalizing it takes the illegal operator out of the system and would help diminish that claim.”
Amid the blow back to his comments, Biden came out with a statement on Twitter clarifying his approach to cannabis, which included decriminalization and expungement measures, as well as support for cannabis research, medical marijuana legalization, and legalization of adult use cannabis at the state-level.
Although perhaps too little too late to staunch the internet reaction, Biden’s platform shows progress in terms of evolution of society's ー and Biden's ー support for cannabis legalization.
“It does stand out to me, at least, the amount of progress that has happened in this country and within the Democratic party on this issue,” Hudak said. ”If Joe Biden ー when he first ran for president in 1988 ー if he had the position that he has today, he would have been laughed off the stage.”
Biden’s fellow presidential contenders didn’t miss the opportunity to capitalize on his fumble. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted out his own stance on cannabis Sunday, and Andrew Yang shared photos of himself in a grow facility. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who herself has a troubled history with cannabis, also chimed in on Monday.
“Let's be clear: marijuana isn't a gateway drug and should be legalized. Glad to see my bill with Rep. Nadler take the next step in the House this week,” she tweeted on Monday.
Her tweet was well-timed with an announcement made by the House Judiciary Committee that it will markup the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act on Wednesday. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the bill’s sponsor in the House, said he expects a majority vote on the bill in committee Wednesday, “and it won’t be only Democrats.”
The MORE Act, cosponsored by Harris and Nadler is an ambitious and sweeping bill that hopes to remove cannabis from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act, as well as begin the process of repairing damages from the War on Drugs through a series of provisions like expungement, re-sentencing, and reinvestment in communities disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization.
“There is no evidence to justify any scheduling of marijuana … just because we made a mistake for the last 70 years doesn't mean we should continue to make that mistake," Nadler said during a press conference on Tuesday.
The markup makes good on promises by Nadler, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), and other Democrats that Congress would quickly consider legislation that includes social equity provisions, following passage of the Safe and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in the House in September. Comparatively limited in nature, the SAFE Banking Act seeks to expand much needed banking services to cannabis businesses by protecting banks that choose to serve legal businesses in legal states. In the weeks leading up to the vote, the bill and those who supported it were criticized by progressive Democrats for the bill's failure to address social equity.
"We shouldn't settle any longer for incremental change. Those individual pieces of legislation had a role to play, they were important, but we must commit to the restorative justice that’s in this [bill],“ Sen. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said during the press conference.
The MORE Act currently has 55 sponsors ー one of whom, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is Republican.