Joe Biden’s Criminal Justice Reform Task Force Passes on Marijuana Legalization

July 13, 2020

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders’ “Unity Task Force”⁠—six committees set up to shape policies in an attempt to unite the wings of the Democratic Party in advance of the presidential election⁠—released its policy recommendations on July 9. The 110-page report includes recommendations from the eight-person criminal justice reform panel, whose composition Filter contributor Rory Fleming described as “incredibly milquetoast.”

Surprising no one, the report recommends that Biden decriminalize marijuana federally but stop short of legalization. It also recommends that he expand the controversial use of drug courts and treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration for drug-law violations. The recommendations pretty much stick to what the presumed nominee has already publicly stated during his campaign.

Intriguingly, Marijuana Moment reports that most of the task force’s individual members have gone on record in support of legalization, but that as a body, they “didn’t reach consensus.” That’s convenient for Biden, who has made clear throughout his campaign that he doesn’t support legalization.

The report says that Biden should “decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level. We will support legalization of medical marijuana, and believe states should be able to make their own decisions about recreational use […] All past criminal convictions for cannabis use should be automatically expunged.”

The idea of automatically expunging marijuana criminal convictions is welcome. Filter has reported on the challenges people with criminal convictions face trying to clear or expunge past records—even in states that legalized marijuana. Counties in California, for example have taken a very disjointed approach to clearing marijuana convictions after legalization, with some residents waiting years for their district attorney to comply with relevant laws.

Decriminalizing cannabis, legalizing medical marijuana federally, and staying out of states’ business on recreational legalization certainly improves on the positions of Presidents Trump and Obama. But there are good reasons activists want to go further: According to an ACLU report released on 4/20, decriminalization and medical laws alone are not as effective as full legalization in preventing arrests and incarceration.

Encouragingly, the task force did recommend that a Biden administration “Encourage states to invest tax revenue from legal marijuana industries to repair damage to Black and brown communities hit hardest by incarceration.” This resonates with the bigger point the ACLU report made—that legalization alone will not create racial justice. Persisting racial disparities in arrest rates and a segregated legal industry demonstrate that.

Beyond marijuana, the task force also recommends that Biden “reduce criminal penalties for drug possession and support increased use of drug courts and treatment diversion programs instead of incarceration for those struggling with substance use disorders.” Reducing incarceration for drugs would unquestionably be a step forward, but more mandatory drug treatment is a highly problematic alternative.

Filter has reported on the many problems with this approach, including coercion, human rights abuses, ludicrous completion requirements, and totally unscientific approaches to treatment.

None of the task force recommendations are binding. But they point firmly to a Biden 2020 drug policy platform that is far better than his opponent’s, but far short of what experts and advocates want.


Photo by stingrayschuller via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is an editorial fellow at Filter.

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