• March 4, 2021

Biden has Marijuana and Criminal Justice Advocates Nervous yet Bullish

 Biden has Marijuana and Criminal Justice Advocates Nervous yet Bullish

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The pageantry is over. Now a chorus of advocates is clamoring to be heard — early and often — by President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and the array of political appointees who will eventually round out this new administration. Unlike in years and decades past, advocates for marijuana, prison, drug policy and criminal justice reform are bullish this time around.

While the diverse groups trying to get Biden’s attention early trust that he’ll be a better partner than his predecessor, they’re also nervous his prohibitionist past, coupled with his son’s struggle with addiction, will tempt him to de-prioritize the very issues he pledged to address. And Biden’s fielding advice, being sent demands and hearing heartbreaking stories of a system he’s admitted to helping break from all corners of his diverse party.  

While there are always nuanced differences, most pro-marijuana advocacy groups are aligned with their collective desire to do what they’ve been demanding for decades now: Legalize the damn thing, as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) put it to The News Station.

Even now that Democrats control the Senate (if just barely), the House and the White House, getting anything signed into law remains a challenge.

That’s especially the case when it comes to convincing an already divided Congress to unwind even a sliver of the nation’s century-old war on ‘drugs.’ That may be, in part, because the government spent hundreds of millions of dollars implanting that policy into most of our minds through D.A.R.E. and other ultimately failed efforts to get Americans to deny their natural inclination towards substances of one kind or 10 others.

So even though Gallup recently documented record-breaking support for marijuana, as 68% of respondents endorsed cannabis legalization, advocates know nothing is guaranteed in Washington.   

“Legalization, or the passage of comprehensive reform, is far from a done deal. Legislation requires 60 votes for passage in the Senate, and we have a lot of hard work to do to get to that level of support in the upper chamber,” Michelle Rutter Friberg, the National Cannabis Industry Association’s deputy director of government relations, said. “In the House, Democrats have an even slimmer majority now than during the 116th Congress, so we also have to make sure we don’t lose support there.”

Cannabis advocates are also still working to get the nation’s banks and other lenders into this new green gold rush, even as they keep working to get small, minority and female-owned businesses a seat at the table.

But advocates know it’s not just marijuana that’s potentially on the table in this 117th Congress.

After supporting the successful effort in Oregon to decriminalize possession of all drugs, the ACLU is feeling the wind at its back and going big. Its leaders are asking Biden to use executive action in his first 100 days to make bold moves to declare and start to implement “an end to the war on drugs.”  

“Thousands of people are prosecuted in federal court for drug possession, and prosecutors have failed to adequately use their discretion to decline these cases, let alone to not seek incarceration as sentence,” Udi Ofer, the director of the ACLU’s Justice Division, wrote. “This must end. An executive order by President Biden should also incentivize states to end the war on drugs, where the large majority of incarceration for drugs takes place.”

The ACLU is also calling for this new administration to commute federal sentences for anyone “incarcerated for the war on drugs,” while also asking for more federal investments directed towards programs aimed at stemming the overdose epidemic.

Over at the Drug Policy Alliance, its post-inauguration press release — which also included a 13-page roadmap for these first 100 days — appealed to the president’s compassionate — and logical — side.

“Our country is dealing with record overdose deaths exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, where jails and prisons have become the biggest COVID hotspots, and the public is increasingly aware of the racial inequalities that exist within our judicial system and that are largely driven by the war on drugs,” Maritza Perez, the director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote.

“None of these things will be resolved easily or overnight,” Perez continued, “however, we are confident the Biden-Harris Administration understands their urgency and look forward to working with them to find solutions centered in health over criminalization.”

Still, other groups are appealing directly to the new president’s personal life, and they want aggressive action to stem the nation’s overdose crisis.   

“President Biden knows the pain of seeing his child struggle with addiction issues, a pain far too many families are now suffering and seeing results in unintended deaths due to the fentanyl poisoning crisis,” Jim Rauh — who founded Families Against Fentanyl after losing his son to an overdose — wrote. “From one father to another, I urge President Biden to act swiftly to tackle the fentanyl crisis by fully funding harm-reduction programs across the U.S. and deploying the full resources of the federal government to detect and stop the flow of illicit fentanyl as it would with other chemical weapons.”

While Families Against Fentanyl is a newer organization that was born out of the national tragedy that is the opioid epidemic, the other groups have been around for years — even decades — and they’re flexing a new, more proactive tone.

Their early and aggressive effort to influence the agenda isn’t because they see Biden as their advocate-in-chief. Rather, they know they have to keep pressure up so these issues don’t fall off his radar. They remember they weren’t at the top of his priority list at the start of the Democratic presidential primary — as Biden’s former opponents made clear on those debate stages.

“This week I hear him literally say that “I don’t think we should legalize marijuana.” I thought you might have been high when you said it,” Booker said to Biden during the primary. “And let me tell you, because marijuana — marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people. And it’s — the war on drugs has been a war on Black and Brown people.”

Even as Biden was eventually pulled leftward, towards his party’s vocal progressive wing, his record on these issues still instills fear in many advocates. That’s because as chair of the Judiciary Committee he helped transform America’s criminal justice system by ushering through the 1994 tough-on-crime bill.   

Like most Democrats who were in office back then, Biden has since changed his tune and worked to undo many of the harsh penalties he helped enshrine in law, like unforgiving mandatory minimum prison sentences and even the racist sentencing disparity between powder cocaine (think suburban country club users) and crack cocaine (the cheaper alternative that’s more popular on urban streets).

Biden’s reaction to Booker saying, “I thought you might have been high when you said it,” during the Democratic primary.

That’s why advocates are starting this new Biden administration with a full court press — they want to make sure this newly minted president remembers what he promised to win the Democratic primary.

Then they want to see him act on those pledges, and they’re promising to be loud until this new president, his administration and Democratic leaders in Congress finally turn the party’s newfound rhetoric into federal statutes.

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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