“It’s another very vivid example of the conflict between antiquated policies in the past and the place America is and where America is going,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Capitol Hills unofficial weedar, in an interview. “It’s probably not surprising.”
Blumenauer is already compiling a letter with other legislators in which the Biden government asks for clarification on the dismissals.
Many Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including Vice President Kamala Harris, have changed their positions on cannabis legalization in recent years. But Biden, who as a senator guarded the 1994 Crime Act, which hit a disproportionately large number of color communities and established mandatory minimum penalties for possession of marijuana, never really embraced the idea. As recently as last year, Biden staff opposed legalizing marijuana as part of the Democratic Party’s political platform. It was a step backwards from 2016 when the party made history by advocating a “path” to legalization.
“They did not support the shutdown and legalization,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), A co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus of Congress who worked with the Biden campaign on the Democratic Party platform last summer would have. She asked to meet with the administration to discuss cannabis policy, including the recent uproar over the staff. In an interview, she added that the recent White House actions came as no surprise to her. “What this shows is the effect of these laws.”
Rather than advocating full legalization, Biden’s campaign proposed a patchwork of changes to federal drug law that would legalize, decriminalize, and continue to ban cannabis in a variety of ways that experts say will be difficult to implement.
“His approach is very piecemeal,” said John Hudak, expert on cannabis policy and executive powers at the Brookings Institution. “It’s hard to see how that works out.”
The White House’s decision to fire or punish employees for marijuana shows the gap between the Biden government and the majority of its party, which is increasingly seeing decriminalization or outright legalization as a major issue in criminal justice reform.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki downplayed the Daily Beast report in two tweets on Friday while saying the security clearances would not “automatically” disqualify an applicant who has used marijuana.
“The bottom line is that of the hundreds of people who have been hired, only five people who started working in the White House are no longer employed because of this policy.” She added.
Almost all of Biden’s competitors in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary have enforced the legalization of federal marijuana. And two years ago, when he was fishing for the White House, Harris, then a Senator from California, joked about smoking pots.
“I’ve … and I’ve breathed in,” she told the hosts of The breakfast club about smoking in college. “It’s been a long time … I think a lot of people enjoy it and we need more joy.”
Biden’s main opponent in the debate confronted him for refusing to accept legalization of marijuana. Proponents of criminal justice reform accuse the strict drug laws advocated by Biden and other lawmakers in the 1990s of incarcerating people for overly punitive marijuana crimes. But Biden planted himself and suggested that marijuana was a gateway drug, which sparked criticism caused him to go back on that statement.
He also later said he didn’t believe people should be locked up for marijuana and wanted marijuana records to be cleared – a move away from the senator who named Republican President George H.W. criticized. Bush’s anti-drug plan doesn’t go far enough.
“We must unite to ensure that drug dealers are punished quickly, safely and severely. We must hold every drug user accountable.” That was what Biden said at the time.
Now one third of Americans live in one state where marijuana is legal and a majority support full legalization, including 83 percent of the Democrats. Congress is also moving in this direction: Parliament passed a law to legalize marijuana in December, and the Senate plans to follow suit soon. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer himself is drafting a new law on legalization and has previously promised that legalization would be a priority if the Democrats ran the chamber.
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) And Schumer pursue comprehensive approaches to cannabis reform, while Biden’s strategy, according to Hudak, is “public order with a scalpel instead of an ax”.
During the campaign, Biden pointed to his support for decriminalizing cannabis and moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II. Marijuana is classified as a List I substance, which is the most restrictive category alongside heroin and LSD.
However, his suggestion indicated a lack of familiarity with federal drug laws. Lawyers, state marijuana regulators and cannabis advocates expressed confusion over his support for the decriminalization and rescheduling of marijuana. Cocaine and methamphetamine are List II substances and are still highly criminalized. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this.
As the party’s candidate, Biden had new opportunities to take a more progressive stance on legalization, and instead dig into his heels. His attempt to involve the progressive wing of the party through the “Unity” task force with Bernie Sanders led to compromises in policy areas such as climate change, immigration and economic policy – but not on marijuana. The only concession Sanders made to the weed policy was the removal of a budget driver that Washington D.C. from regulating marijuana sales. Even some of Biden’s agents couldn’t move him on the matter.
As leader of the Democratic Party, Biden’s attitude had ripple effects. The party rejected an amendment in support of legalization as an official political plank and instead adopted a platform that supports decriminalization and erasure, and reflected Biden’s stance on the issue.
Harris also changed her rhetoric when she accepted the Democratic nomination as Biden’s No. 2. Legislators, who advocated comprehensive legalization in the Senate in 2019, suddenly switched to promoting decriminalization of cannabis rather than legalization.
But Biden could join his Democrats in time, Brookings’ Hudak said.
“We shouldn’t match a president who is … not a huge cannabis reformer with a president who has not changed his mind over time,” he said. “In Biden, many cannabis reformers don’t want him. But he’s not the Joe Biden of 1988 or 1994. “