The Reality of Marijuana Reform during Joe Biden’s Time as Vice President

While fellow 2020 Democratic nominees have evolved significantly on drug policy, and particularly marijuana reform, Biden has barely budged since the 1980s when he began introducing legislature perpetuating the war on drugs and racial disparities in criminal penalties.

Biden appeals to what’s considered the left-centrist constituency, and though President Obama did signal evolution in America, many Democrats have voiced their concern that a return to that administration may be remembering history through rose-colored glasses. These skeptics will point out that not much actual progress was made on drug policy reform.

The Cole Memorandum - A Victory for Cannabis

Liberals often look to the 2013 Cole Memorandum under Obama as a significant victory for cannabis. The memo called for federal law enforcement to allow cannabis businesses to operate under state law, but it was a single right decision during a presidency that wreaked havoc on states’ marijuana programs and did little to reclassify a drug that President Obama himself said should be treated the same as alcohol and tobacco.

Here is the reality of marijuana reform during Joe Biden’s time as Vice President:

  • On September 25, 2012, during re-election season, the DEA tried to shut down more than seventy medical marijuana dispensaries in and around Los Angeles.

  • A June 2013 report issued by Americans for Safe Access found that the DEA had carried out some 270 medical marijuana raids under Obama—twelve more than had been conducted in the previous twelve years combined. The administration had spent $300 million interfering with state medical marijuana laws over four and a half years, which was $100 million more than the Bush administration during both terms.

  • The Cole Memorandum came just a few months after a DEA raid of Montana Cannabis. Growers cultivating marijuana legally under Montana medical marijuana laws were arrested and charged with drug trafficking.  The 2013 Cole Memorandum made clear that these sorts of operations by the DEA were excessive, but the DEA resumed raids less than a year later.

  • Their Justice Department rejected petitions to reschedule the plant under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 2011 and 2016.

Many fear Biden will allow the same practices, which have all but vanished since. With the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill into law, hemp, marijuana’s nonintoxicating sibling was finally rescheduled. In April, Biden appeared on a panel discussing the opioid epidemic. During that panel, a professor claimed that pain patients who consume cannabis don’t have any less pain and Biden, whispering “she’s right” to the guest beside him, applauded.



Biden as a Cannabis Lawmaker

Had Biden been in charge and not Obama, the country would have likely been much worse on drug policy. The former Vice President has sponsored some of the nation’s most punitive drug legislation. Let’s take a look at his track record:

  • Biden sponsored Thurmond’s Criminal Code Reform Act in 1981. The bill increased penalties for trafficking marijuana.

  • He introduced the Comprehensive Narcotics Control Act of 1986, which called for militarization against illegal substances and the eradication of Native American cultivation and use of cannabis.

  • Biden sponsored the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 best known for creating sentencing disparities for crack versus powder cocaine; whereby one gram of crack was equivalent to 100 grams of powder cocaine under the law. The provision led to significant racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

  • In 1989, he proposed a program to the United Nations where member states could have their U.S. debts forgiven for increasing seizures of marijuana.

  • He supported the  National Drug Control Strategy Act in 1990, which included the establishment of “military-style boot camp prisons” to be used for people testing positive for a controlled substance at the time of an arrest or following an arrest. The act also required that people pass drug tests during sentences, parole, and probation. The bill even required the motion picture and television industries to allow the government to place anti-drug messages in their productions.

  • The Biden-Thurmond Violent Crime Control Act of 1991, made cannabis laws more severe by reducing “from 100 to 50 the number of marijuana plants needed to qualify for” penalties.

  • In 1993, Biden filed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act to establish a drug testing program for federal offenders on “post-conviction release” and increase penalties for those convicted of drug distribution. It also contained the famous three-strikes rule that people convicted of three felony drug charges receive a life sentence without release.

  • In 1998, as states began making moves to allow medical cannabis, the senator co-sponsored a resolution to ban the practice and keep research restricted to the federal government. He also stated that “ambiguous cultural messages about marijuana use are contributing to a growing acceptance of marijuana use among children and teenagers” and voiced support for federal authorities enforcing prohibition “through seizure and other civil action, as well as through criminal penalties.”

  • Biden voted in favor of a bill in 1999 that directed the drug czar to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize” cannabis.



Joe Biden is not a Pro-Cannabis Candidate

Joe Biden’s record on marijuana policy is that of a man out of touch with state lawmakers in his party and voters across the political spectrum. He’s sponsored some of the country’s most damaging drug legislation. If achieving cannabis reform is the goal, Biden is probably not the man for the job. Back in 1974, when Biden was a 32-year-old, he was quoted by the Washingtonian saying that “when it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother.”  

Well, now that he is a grandfather’s age, we need to really consider whether or not we want this kind of thinking back in the White House. As we progress through this candidacy analysis, it’s critical for the cannabis industry to be represented by a forward-thinking candidate. Here’s a summary of each candidate’s stance on cannabis:

Democratic Candidate Marijuana Stance List


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