An odd answer, both on the merits and as a strategic matter.
WATCH: @JoeBiden on marijuana legalization – "There is not nearly been enough evidence…as to whether or not it is a gateway drug," he said last night, "It’s a debate." Biden said states should decide on legalization & that he supports medical marijuana. @CBSNews pic.twitter.com/s4CE32phLS
— Bo Erickson CBS (@BoKnowsNews) November 17, 2019
Is it in fact a gateway drug? One clue that the evidence isn’t strong is the fact that even Biden refuses to flatly make that claim in the clip. “We need more research” is as far as he’ll go. It’s true that smoking weed often precedes using harder stuff, but then it’s also true that drinking often precedes smoking weed. To the extent that marijuana really is a “gateway,” the particular gate it might unlock for users is comfort in participating in a black market, not necessarily comfort with all manner of drugs. If marijuana is made legal, it may actually lose some of its gateway status.
But we’re not going to settle that debate here. An obvious follow-up question for Biden on this point should be, “How much more study, precisely, would you need before you’re ready for federal legalization?” The beauty of Biden’s answer if you’re a legalization skeptic is that it allows opponents to raise the bar continually as needed to justify continued opposition. “Yes, fine, the last three studies showed no definitive proof of a gateway drug, but we need to be really sure.”
What makes this answer odd for a famously “electable” Democratic presidential candidate is that the numbers are strongly against him nowadays, especially within his own party. Pew released a poll just last week showing that this is now a supermajority issue among all American adults, with 67 percent in favor of legalizing recreational use versus 32 percent opposed. Even Republicans are 55/44 on the issue. (Among Republican millennials, it’s 71 percent.) But it’s Democrats, at 78/20, whose numbers blow the roof off. That’s not all due to the youngest among them either:
Note that even the oldest Democrats tilt slightly in favor of legalization. Among the somewhat younger Baby Boomer cohort, 81 percent support it. Biden’s support in the party trends much older, so he’s safer giving this answer than any of his competitors would be. Yet the question remains: Why would he want to be on the wrong side of 78 percent of his party, on an issue in which even his own base of Democratic senior citizens is in favor and which could help him get younger Dems excited about turning out next November for a candidate whom they otherwise view as lackluster and too conservative? Some Democratic strategists would even tell you that having the nominee get behind legalization could be what puts them over the top against Trump inasmuch as it might draw younger, otherwise disengaged casual voters to the polls.
Instead, Biden’s taking a position here that’s not much different from Trump’s, up to and including his openness to letting states legalize the drug if they like. If he wants to punt on the issue on federalist terms, the logical thing to do would be to remove all federal penalties and allow the states to regulate the drug as lightly or as heavily as they like. The sort of scheme he’s talking about in the clip, in which the feds retain some non-criminal sanctions for possession, would continue the current legal limbo in which marijuana users find themselves in states where the drug is legal.
Anyway, here’s a tweet from last night that certainly wasn’t aimed at any candidate in particular:
Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized.
These are matters of public health.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) November 18, 2019
It’s not as if Biden has no reason to be cautious. WaPo notes a recent study that found “states that have legalized the recreational use of cannabis saw a half-percentage-point increase in rates of problematic use of the drug.” This piece by a psychiatric nurse that’s making the rounds today on Twitter warns of firsthand experience with users suffering from psychosis as strains of the drug are bred to be more powerful. But 67 percent is a high tide to have to turn back. Maybe Biden’s strategy on policy is to simply bide time and see what shakes out in Colorado and other states that have legalized. If there’s a notable uptick in social problems, there’s the argument for holding off on federal legalization. But that probably won’t stop blue states from doing it piecemeal themselves.