While the former Vice President has campaigned for cannabis law reform movements, he was still under scrutiny for previously supporting legislation against the drug during his time in the Senate. It was known that he was among the most prominent Democratic drug warriors in Congress for decades.
He has since stated during his Presidential campaign that he has changed his views; his administration will pursue the decriminalization of marijuana, moderate rescheduling of the drug, the legalization of medical cannabis, and record expungement of those previously imprisoned of low-level marijuana possession. He also favors letting states set their own policies without federal intervention.
During last month’s town hall on ABC, Biden showed his support in decriminalizing marijuana. He states that anybody with a history of drug use should go into mandatory rehabilitation instead of imprisonment. He says that they “should be building rehab centers to have these people housed.”
However, many advocates did not agree with Biden’s forced rehabilitation as a progressive alternative to incarceration. According to Marijuana Moment, most advocates feel that mandatory treatment emphasizes misconceptions about substance misuse and that forced rehabilitation programs’ efficacy is scientifically questionable.
While both the President-elect and Vice President-elect have campaigned for pro-marijuana reform—while both have histories of supporting and authoring anti-drug legislation—most of what advocates can count on for federal change rests on Congress.
It is still unclear which party will control the Senate next year since new outlets are still waiting to project several other races’ results. Two Georgia seats also appear to be headed for January runoffs.
Democratic leaders have expressed and actively pledged to end federal marijuana prohibition. If the Democratic party wins the majority of the Senate, the future of cannabis reform is largely on the books.
However, if the Republican party remains in control of the Senate, the Biden administration may likely face challenges on moving marijuana legislation even if he prioritizes the issue. The GOP-controlled chamber has shown in the past two years that they are unwilling to address the issue in a meaningful way.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been an unwavering opponent of marijuana reform laws. According to Marijuana Moment, he has made clear that reform bills “would not stand a chance in his chamber” even as he has backed hemp legalization.
If Democrats regain control of the chamber, they will have the ability to bring any number of cannabis reform bills to the floor, including those calling for the end of federal marijuana prohibition. Senator Chuck Schumer said last month that he “will put his own descheduling bill ‘in play’” with a good chance of passing it.
Schumer is the current top Democrat in the chamber and is expected to be installed as the majority leader in January if the party wins enough outstanding races.
Last September, the chamber was expected to hold a floor vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act. This comprehensive legalization bill also contains provisions to fund programs that will repair the damage the war on drugs has caused.
However, it was postponed due to certain Democrats argued that passing the bill during the COVID-19 pandemic would be bad for them, especially if they do it before approving another pandemic relief package. Leadership has since committed to voting on the legislation later this fall.
Even with Biden’s marijuana decriminalization campaign that many advocates are still questioning, a federal reform under his administration is more likely than if Trump were reelected.
While Trump has voiced in favor of medical cannabis and bipartisan legislation to protect states that legalize cannabis from federal intervention, he has not pledged any specific reforms himself, nor has he pushed Republican lawmakers to discuss the issue properly.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has also shown support in marijuana decriminalization in her campaign along with Biden. Last year, she became the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to end federal prohibition. However, she was also criticized for previously campaigning against the legalization of cannabis in California and her former prosecutorial record for pursuing low-level cannabis cases as a state district attorney.
Harris—during her run for the 2020 presidential nomination—has campaigned to legalize cannabis, but her statements on the issue have lessened since she agreed to run alongside Biden. Last month, she said that she has a “deal” with the former Vice President to openly share her perspective on the progressive policies he currently opposes, such as legalizing the drug.
Although she has not indicated that she would proactively push him in that direction, she pressed that their administration would have “a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”
So far, Biden has voiced other steps forward on marijuana reform. Biden has pledged to move to Schedule II since it is within the executive branch’s power to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. While he has not actively pledged on it, he could also reinstate the Justice Department memo from the Obama administration—which was rescinded by the Trump administration in 2018—that directed federal prosecutors to generally not interfere with state marijuana laws.
However, according to the Marijuana Moment, that move would not achieve as most changes many advocates seek.
While it is more than likely that the Biden administration would be a constructive player in advancing marijuana reform—according to Rep. Earl Blumenauer to Marijuana Moment—Biden’s record of opposing reform and favoring penal drug policies still leaves the question to many, what steps will he be willing to take post-election?