WASHINGTON, DC — There’s bipartisan agreement on at least one thing in Washington: No one knows where President Joe Biden stands on federal marijuana policy, let alone where he’s at on broader drug policy.
The silence from Biden’s cabinet secretaries, advisors and nominees isn’t because the issue hasn’t come up.
“I honestly don’t know what President Biden’s stance is on cannabis, currently,” newly minted and history making Interior Secretary Deb Haaland testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 24.
But just last week — two weeks after she delivered her above remark to Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming who pressed her on it during her confirmation hearings — we asked the then-congresswoman from New Mexico if she had gotten an answer.
“I haven’t. No,” Haaland told The News Station on the steps of the Capitol.
“You still have questions?” we asked.
“You know, honestly, that’s not what I’m focused on at the moment,” Haaland said as she was ascending the Capitol steps to cast one of her final votes in this Congress.
That’s the growing fear in some circles: The administration isn’t focused on ending the prohibition of marijuana — a key part of the Democratic Party’s promise to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system — let alone the party’s movement towards ending the broader ‘war on drugs.’
“They’re not the destination, they’re the door”Rep. Ayanna Pressley on the Biden administration
While candidate Joe Biden eventually moved towards the progressive end of the spectrum during the Democratic presidential primary, President Biden’s been quiet on many of these issues. His silence has been drowned out by a growing chorus of senior administration officials who have been loudly moderating their public drug policy positions.
It’s not just Haaland, which has some pro-marijuana lawmakers and advocates worried. Biden also tapped Vanita Gupta to be associate attorney general. After leading the Obama administration’s civil rights division in the Department of Justice, she went on to the ACLU, where she co-authored an op-ed calling for the decriminalization of all drugs, a position she told GOP Sen. John Cornyn she no longer holds during her confirmation hearings.
“No, senator, I do not,” Gupta replied when asked.
Vice President Kamala Harris has also seemed to backpedal on the issue, and other top picks — even ones with decorated federal government resumes, like Veterans Administration Secretary Denis McDonough (Obama’s former chief of staff) and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin (who chaired the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018 under Obama) — have been quiet on the issue.
Like president, like cabinet?
“I think Joe Biden’s been all over the place on marijuana reform,” GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida told The News Station at the Capitol. “I would tell Joe Biden the same thing that I told Donald Trump, which is that, you know, executive action can remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 substances. And any president would be wise to do that.”
It’s not just Republicans.
Before entering the Oval Office, Biden already moved the party back on marijuana by convincing the DNC to abandon the legalization it endorsed in 2016 and instead merely endorse decriminalization in its 2020 platform, according to progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who at the time told The News Station the move was “embarrassing.”
More moderate pro-cannabis Democrats are also waiting and watching.
“You always got to be worried, OK? You know, you trust, but you verify. You always have to make sure that things happen,” Democratic Rep. Lou Correa of California told The News Station at the Capitol. “So nothing is certain, and you just got to keep working at it.”
Now, with top Biden nominees, newly confirmed cabinet secretaries and other senior administration officials (like his press office, which didn’t respond to requests for comment from The News Station) either mum or moving past the middle of the country on marijuana policy, there’s growing fear of Biden’s formerly moderate, tough on crime (and harsh on addicts) impulses overtaking the more progressive promises he made in the primary.
“That’s been our concern all along,” Matt Sutton, director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance, told The News Station.
Concern doesn’t mean it wasn’t something advocates saw coming.
“Biden wouldn’t have been the president that we would have chosen. Obviously, he’s better than Trump,” Sutton said. “You know, basically, every other candidate was more progressive on their marijuana policies.”
The learning curve being extended to Biden and his new (and still incoming) team could stem from how far he’s already seen as moving on the issue.
“I think Joe Biden’s been all over the place on marijuana reform”Rep. Matt Gaetz
“Given the trajectory of Biden’s evolution on this topic, I find it hard to believe that he would be moving backwards,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told The News Station. “Any softening up positions from key administration personnel from their previous statements, my impression is that it’s the administration just trying to be in lockstep on policy issues.”
Thus far, Biden’s mostly helped keep Democrats unified on key, if divisive, issues like marijuana and broader drug policy. Even progressives continue to extend him more grace than scorn at this stage in his new administration, partly because Biden’s team has been asking for input from all sectors of today’s diverse Democratic Party.
“I’ve been in ongoing communication with the administration around everything from cabinet appointees to sub-cabinet appointees to policy priorities,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley told The News Station on her way to vote inside the Capitol.
Still, the Democrat from Massachusetts says there’s not going to be a grace period on issues of criminal justice for too much longer.
“I just think it’s true for any elected official and certainly an incoming presidential administration, they’re not the destination, they’re the door,” Pressley said. “You’re always going to have to continue to lobby.”
Biden’s team consists of “thoughtful, committed partners,” Pressley says, though she’s in no one’s pocket.
“Again, a big part of partnership is accountability,” Pressley said. “So on those things that there have been expressed commitments on the campaign trail, I intend to continue to push on those things until they happen.”
Ultimately, pro-marijuana Democrats say they have no intention of waiting for a former tough-on-crime senator to take the lead on normalizing substances like marijuana, even if he now occupies the White House.
“His position is very important, but it’s really Congress’ — it’s my job — to make sure that Democrats and Republicans pass legislation that’s common sense and recognizes the scientific reality behind cannabis,” Rep. Correa of California told The News Station. “I’d be surprised if he wouldn’t sign something. I’d really be surprised.”