Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden confirmed on November 16 that he doesn’t support federal legalization of marijuana. He also continues to suspect that it is a “gateway drug” that leads to further, riskier drug use and to addiction.
Marijuana use may be associated with expanding—or contracting—other drug use through the mediating factor of a person’s situation in life. But this phenomenon contrasts with the popular idea that marijuana is a “gateway drug” due to its inherent chemical properties—which is just another drug myth. Public health officials rightly don’t worry that marijuana tourists in Denver will become street heroin or meth addicts. Whatever coincidences of marijuana and other drug use occur, extended research shows to disappear by adulthood.
Biden nonetheless maintained at a town hall meeting in Las Vegas: “There’s not been nearly enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug. It’s a debate.”
His comments have provoked a backlash. That the more liberal party’s unsteady frontrunner for the presidency is so resolutely anti-marijuana will be jarring for Democrats—of whom almost 80 percent now support legalization—and even for Republicans, who show 55 percent support. Thus a large majority of voters are scratching their heads: You mean we’re still having 1970s debates about drugs in 2020?
Among those who find this proposition startling is Biden’s fellow Democratic contender Andrew Yang. “I believe that Joe actually will end up evolving on this issue over time if he sees the same evidence that I have,” Yang told CNN, while tweeting a picture of himself posing with cannabis plants.
There is good reason to question Yang’s optimism. Joe Biden brings a long history of antipathy toward intoxicants to his presidential candidacy.
His personal choices are illuminating. Although his father was a moderate drinker, Biden says he had alcoholic relatives and observed problem drinking around him growing up. Convinced of the dangers of alcohol, Biden says, he has never taken a drink.
Underlying Biden’s drug antipathy is his focus on addiction as a disease.
Biden shares this attribute, of course, with President Trump. So the possibility of Biden’s being the Democrats’ 2020 candidate offers the curious scenario of the next presidency being contested by two men who have never drunk alcohol. This situation hasn’t occurred before in American history—not during the 19th century Temperance Movement, nor during Prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Not only is America’s Temperance past still felt in America, it is not even in the past.
Underlying Biden’s drug antipathy is his focus on addiction as a disease. He most forcefully demonstrated this by proposing the Recognizing Addiction as a Disease Act of 2007 in the US Senate. (The bill was never voted on.)
This act reflects Biden’s desire to make clear that there is something inherently wrong and dangerous with using drugs, which Biden himself apparently never has. This, despite the fact that most people who use any drug do not become addicted. Moreover, as modern thinking has come to recognize, drug users are human beings who have the right to live their lives free from constant attacks by their government.
Biden and other disease advocates claim that calling addiction a disease reflects compassion for those affected. But research indicates that disease labeling increases stigma and reduces people’s chances of recovering from drug-related problems.
In any case, we have Biden’s anything-but-compassionate policy record to go on. Many—above all people of color and other vulnerable members of society—have paid a harsh price for his legislative efforts.
True to his lifetime abhorrence of intoxicants, Biden was a drug hardliner in the Obama administration. Prior to the current set-to, Marijuana Moment analyzed Biden’s drug warrior status:
He’s sponsored some of the country’s most punitive drug legislation, including the notorious 1994 crime bill. … he has long maintained that drugs should be illegal across the board, that the criminal justice system is well-equipped to handle drug offenders and that regulating marijuana is a mistake.
As Filter has detailed, this pattern further included Biden’s support for the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which notoriously established a 100:1 disparity in quantities of (chemically near-identical) crack and powder cocaine required to trigger mandatory minimum sentences, with demonstrably racist outcomes.
This 1989 Biden quote captures the candidate’s view of drugs and drug policy: “If there are no drug users, there will be no appetite for drugs, and there will be no market for them.” The spirit of Nancy Reagan still pervades American consciousness, and is now conveyed by the proposed leader of the Democratic Party and the nation.
Biden has moved on some of these issues. This year he described the crack sentencing he helped to introduce as a “big mistake.” He now supports the decriminalization of marijuana, while saying that states should be able to determine their own policies on legalization.
His larger track record shows, however, that this goes against his gut instincts and that he has been dragged reluctantly along by popular opinion.
Joe Biden fears and eschews drugs. He believes that their use is invariably negative and dangerous and often leads to addiction. He thus feels that drugs should be controlled by a legal system that punishes and coercively treats their use.
In a national landscape where drug policy and harm reduction are more important than ever, can America really tolerate being left with choosing between Biden and Trump?