Members of a criminal justice task force created to inform presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign have been discussing marijuana legalization—a policy the former vice president continues to oppose.
Most of the group—which consists of advisors appointed by both Biden and former primary rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)—support ending cannabis prohibition, and advocates have held out hope that they would recommend that Biden adopt the policy platform in the run-up to the November election.
While some members have publicly talked about the issue since joining the task force, including Linn County, Iowa Supervisor Stacey Walker, who recently commented on the need for reform in light of racial disparities in marijuana criminalization, a new report from Politico appears to be the first confirmation that the group itself is actively considering a formal recommendation on the policy change.
“Multiple people said marijuana policy has been discussed on the criminal justice panel, one of the policy groups of the unity task force,” the outlet reported. “Sanders appointees have advocated for legalization. Some Biden appointees personally support legalizing pot and have debated putting the policy in the panel’s recommendations to the former vice president, according to two people familiar with its deliberations.”
A majority of panel members appointed from both camps have previously gone on record in favor of legalization. That includes Tennessee Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D), former federal prosecutor Chiraag Bains, former Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, former Attorney General Eric Holder, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Walker.
“There’s an opportunity to advance a really bold agenda on criminal justice,” Bains, a Sanders-appointee to the task force, said. “This is part of envisioning a completely different future, not returning to a pre-Trump era. I say that as someone who served proudly in the Obama administration. We just have to be much more aggressive about rooting out systemic racism and injustice in the legal system.”
Biden should “end the War on Drugs, including by legalizing marijuana,” he told Politico.
Walker, whose position on the issue has been lesser-known than other members, also talked about the need for reform during an interview with Little Village that was published on Wednesday. The Iowa official said he knows many white people, including those from prominent families in the state, who consume cannabis and travel to legalized states to obtain it without concern about potential criminal penalties.
“It is no secret that African Americans use marijuana as a substance, recreational substance, just as much as everybody else. I often say, I operate in professional spaces. I know most of my white professional friends in this state use marijuana,” he said. “They do it without ever, ever, ever thinking they will face some sort of legal consequence. It doesn’t even cross their mind. They talk about it openly.”
Watch Walker talk about racial injustices in cannabis criminalization below:
“They don’t ever think about a legal consequences because it’s not real to them— because they can’t conceive of it because they’ve never faced a consequence,” he added. “We’ve just created a system that over-criminalizes people by their race and by their economic situation. That is not right. It is not fair. It’s an aberration of justice.”
He went on to say that decriminalizing cannabis would minimize police encounters that lead people, particularly from communities of color, to be incarcerated and enter the criminal legal system.
Biden has backed the modest reform of decriminalizing marijuana and said that people should be diverted to treatment instead of facing jail time for possessing drugs, but he’s declined to get on board with the majority of Americans, particularly Democrats, who embrace fully legalizing cannabis. He’s opted instead to draw the line at legalization for medical use, expunging prior records, allowing states to set their own policies and federal rescheduling.
Bains said earlier this month that decriminalization is not sufficient, as it “typically means that you don’t have a criminal penalty, but you could still be issued a civil fine. And then there are other kinds of consequences that could follow from that.”
“It’s still illegal conduct,” he said. “If possession of marijuana is just decriminalized and that is the hook for extensive police involvement in people’s lives, and if you haven’t addressed the underlying systemic problems in policing and the justice system overall, then people could continue to be stopped and searched and frisked and so forth.”
It’s not clear whether the task force will ultimately recommend that Biden adopt a pro-legalization platform—or if he would accept that recommendation even if they did. Pressed repeatedly on the issue, Biden has continued to argue that more research should be done before enacting broad reform.
He also recently indicated that his personal experience knowing individuals who consume cannabis has not convinced him that the plant should be legal for recreational use.
For what it’s worth, Sanders doesn’t seem especially optimistic that the former vice president will evolve further, declining in an April interview to list the policy among those from his own platform that he feels Biden will come around to.
That said, as President Trump’s reelection campaign pushes to frame the incumbent as the criminal justice reform candidate, there may be added pressure on Biden to align himself with more progressive policies such as legalization.
Here’s an overview of where members of the Biden-Sanders criminal justice task force stands on cannabis policy:
Akbari, the Tennessee senator, has filed legislation to legalize marijuana in his state and he’s said the reform move is necessary both to promote social equity and to generate revenue that can be used to fund public schools.
Bains, who also serves as the director of legal strategies at Demos, has voiced support for Sanders’s cannabis legalization plan and emphasized the need for racial equity in the legal industry.
Justin Bamberg, a South Carolina lawmaker, has cosponsored legislation to decriminalize marijuana and legalize medical cannabis.
Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Right, backs legalization and has strongly condemned harsh criminalization policies for non-violent drug offenses.
Holder, the former top prosecutor in the U.S., has said that he’d vote in favor of legalizing marijuana if he was in Congress and claimed to have internally tried to convince the administration to reschedule cannabis.
Symone Sanders, senior advisor to Biden, doesn’t have a clear public stance on legalization, but she’s characterized Biden’s modest marijuana reform plan as being progressive.
Scott, a current member of the House, has cosponsored legislation that called for marijuana descheduling and reinvestments in communities harmed most by prohibition.
Walker’s views on the issue became clearer in the recent interview, where he stressed that cannabis laws have been enforced in a racially discriminatory manner.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marc Nozell.