Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden found himself in some hot water after speaking about his viewpoints on marijuana at a town hall Saturday in Las Vegas. Breaking from the norm amongst other Democratic presidential candidates, Biden made it clear he does not support federal legalization of cannabis.
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“The truth of the matter is, there's not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether [marijuana] is a gateway drug,” Biden said in response to a question about whether his stance on legalizing the drug has changed.
“Before I legalize it nationally, I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it,” explained Biden. "It's not irrational to do more scientific investigations to determine... whether or not there are any things that relate to whether it's a gateway drug or not. I don't know enough to know whether it is.”
A “gateway drug” is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one that leads to the use of more dangerous drugs.
The CDC says that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, 'harder' substances.” Even with that statement, the CDC refuses to say marijuana is not a gateway drug.
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The National Institute of Drug Abuse (part of the National Institutes of Health) says one in ten marijuana users become addicted. The likelihood someone becomes addicted to any drug depends first on the type of drug being used but is also influenced by your genes, the environment you're raised in, and the environmental factors that affect a person's critical development stages. For marijuana, the NIDA says the higher the level of THC intake, the more likely it is that someone will become addicted.
But here's where we get to the nitty-gritty: the NIDA says people who use “hard” drugs are likely to have used marijuana before making the switch to the more dangerous substances. However, that correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation, and the Institute repeats the same sentiment as the CDC: most people who smoke weed do not then go on to do other drugs.
“An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs. Further research is needed to explore this question,” NIDA concludes.
A poll by the Pew Research Center shows the shifting trend in public opinion across the United States regarding the legalization of cannabis. Right now, Pew says 67% of Americans support legalizing marijuana. When Joe Biden served as Vice President, that number was closer to 50% - a record high at the time. In 1969, the year Biden was elected to the New Castle County Council, and three years before he was first elected to the Senate, only 12% of Americans wanted cannabis to be legalized.
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Biden has historically been a proponent of the War on Drugs. In 2010, he was quoted as saying marijuana is a gateway drug, and legalization is a mistake. In 1990, he voted to heighten penalties for drug offenders, though in 2007 he opted to divert drug offenders out of the prison system and rename the Drug Abuse Institute to instead be called the Diseases of Addiction Institute. As Vice President, Biden said he supports decriminalization, rather than legalization.
Political rivals responded to Biden's statements about marijuana as a gateway drug almost immediately. For instance, the very next day, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized. These are matters of public health.” Ocasio-Cortez has made clear in the past she views all drug use as a medical issue.
Senator Kamala Harris tweeted a very direct response to Biden's comments the day after he made them, saying, in part, “Let's be clear: marijuana isn't a gateway drug and should be legalized.”
Senator Bernie Sanders cited the same Pew Research poll provided earlier in this article, and tweeted, “The American people are united on issue after issue. We must legalize marijuana now—and expunge all past marijuana convictions as a matter of racial and economic justice.”
In response to the pushback, Biden tweeted, “There is a lot of talk out there on where I stand when it comes to our marijuana laws,” and emphasized that he does want to legalize medical marijuana federally and would instead allow individual states to legalize recreational marijuana (as they are permitted already). He also says he wants to re-classify marijuana (right now, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency lists cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, the same as heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and meth; for the record, cocaine is listed as a Schedule 2 drug) so that researchers can study it. The DEA says, “Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” As you read earlier, the U.S. Government and Jose Biden both currently hold the stance that further research is needed to finally determine whether marijuana is, indeed, a gateway-drug.
Joe Biden has also made it clear he does not drink or smoke. As in, he has never touched alcohol, cigarettes, or cannabis. Here's a passage from the Book of Joe by Jeff Wilser:
Joe Biden has never had a beer. He has never had a drop of alcohol, not even on Spring Break. As a kid, he had noticed that his uncle drank too much, and he wanted to avoid the same fate. Biden had the same policy with cigarettes and pot: “I don’t use anything that could be a crutch,” he told a reporter in 1970.
In contrast, Biden's son Hunter has been open about his struggles with an addiction to alcohol and drugs. In an article from the New Yorker, Hunter Biden is quoted as saying he smoked cigarettes, occasionally used cocaine, once tried crack, and has enrolled in multiple addiction treatment programs. However, that article does not once mention the use of marijuana.