We've finally made it through the most precarious election of many of our lifetimes — and it was a good election for weed.
Cannabis policy reform won big
on November 7, 2021, with measures passing in all five states with ballot initiatives considering legal weed. Adult-use initiatives passed in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota, where voters also approved medical cannabis, as did Mississippi voters.
Now, as the literal dust settles on our democracy, we have elected the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden. He has a lot on his plate. Covid, climate change, the economy and international instability — and he now leads a country in which 35 states, plus DC, have legalized medical marijuana. Recent polls show over 60 percent of Americans would vote to support federal legalization of marijuana, and it’s close to 80 percent approval with voters under the age of 30. Legalization has support in red and blue states. It seems like something that could truly unite us.
Will Federal Prohibition of Cannabis End Under Biden?
As Biden's nominations and the first confirmations roll in, the new administration looks promising for cannabis. The nomination of Dr. Rachel Levine for Asst. Health Secretary, a veteran public servant who has a good history with medical marijuana in her position as Pennsylvania’s health secretary, is a great pick to show Biden wants progress.
This would seem like a terrific start to ending federal prohibition, which for decades has lumped cannabis in with harder drugs as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, defined by federal guidelines as having no currently accepted medical use, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse. I think these days most medical professionals and average Americans alike agree that this is a miscategorization that has caused untold harm.
In a speech at Wake Forrest University Law School in 1989, Biden proclaimed that it is possible to be a recreational consumer of alcohol, offering that even though many people abuse alcohol, it could be enjoyed responsibly. He was adamant, making himself clear with no room for doubt, that it was impossible to be a recreational user of any Schedule I drugs and rhetorically listed them in detail,”… crack, crank, cocaine and marijuana.” This was not a subject unfamiliar to then Senator Biden, who was instrumental in bringing the legislation to criminalize and categorize cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic for President Richard Nixon.
The Nixon administration was the founder of the War on Drugs leading into the Reagan years and Biden, although he was a Democrat, seemed to be at the center of this bi-partisan team from the beginning. The War on Drugs created massive social ills over the next few decades, including mandatory minimums and mass incarceration for non-violent offenses, largely affecting Black and Latino communities disproportionately and much more severely than white offenders.
Holding Biden Accountable
Last year, during a presidential primary debate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) chastised Biden for maintaining the archaic notion that cannabis is a gateway drug. “I thought you might’ve been high when you said it,” zinged Booker, reminding him of the social inequity. “It is already legal for privileged people.”
Biden pushed back that he absolutely would decriminalize weed, saying, “No one should be in jail for marijuana use.” I think it's finally sinking in for the president and his administration that their out-of-touch attitudes are connected to other social injustices. The injustice can and will change, and those changes need to happen now.
Biden has a unique opportunity to learn from what is now years of seeing legalization on a state level in practice. The incredible cannabis research and benefits coming to fruition in recent years are opening people’s eyes. And because the evidence is astoundingly positive, some folks like our new president are able to see cannabis in a new way. What was once a scary, dangerous drug is now medicine for some, and a safe legal alternative to a beer or a glass of wine for others. The only people I know that hate weed are those ignorant of its blessings, and I trust that Biden will come around with the help of the good people he is choosing to work with on health and drug reform.
Legalize It, Joe!
Biden is a good compromise for American cannabis. While he is a far cry from what I hope will be a future President Whoopi Goldberg sparking up a fatty while kicking her feet up in the Oval Office, Biden will do for now. He says he believes in the most important aspects of legalization: medical use for all on a federal level, and rescheduling (or descheduling) cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act so its medical benefits can be researched and studied.
Most importantly, for all the people whose lives have been adversely effected by the War on Drugs, Biden says he supports the decriminalization of past present and current marijuana offenses, including the expungement of past crimes, and freeing those incarcerated. They need to come home now. President Biden can see that, and frankly, I think he's the first president in our lifetime who has the inclination and the bi-partisan support to get it done.
There is poetic irony in the idea that very soon, the man who fought so hard against cannabis reform, and was so reluctant to consider it as anything less than a harmful drug, could become a champion of decriminalization. He will have the opportunity to once and for all make it federally legal. We’re counting on you, Mr. President.