On January 20, Joseph Biden, Jr. will become the 46th president of the United States of America. The Biden administration is poised to inherit a cornucopia of domestic challenges, none more pressing than yet another coronavirus surge. Of the 24 million people who have contracted Covid in the United States, 398K of them have died. Upwards of 7.7 million people have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, and millions of students are falling behind as schools go virtual. The new White House and Congress are tasked with responding to the Covid crisis as quickly and efficiently as possible, a responsibility that will undoubtedly take up the lion’s share of political capital in the upcoming months. With both the White House and Congress in democratic control, cannabis advocates are hopeful that federal legalization is around the corner. Proponents of racial equity and criminal justice reform are hopeful that cannabis legalization will address the harms created by marijuana criminalization. But with the pressures created by Covid and a violently polarizing social climate, proponents of legal weed should add a healthy dose of caution and patience to their optimism.
The new White House will likely approach cannabis reform moderately
Here’s the good news: Democratic leaders are overwhelmingly on one accord about the ineffectiveness of marijuana prohibition. However, players within the White House who wield the most influence on cannabis legalization are mute on the subject of weed at worst and painfully moderate at best. The Biden team is much more likely to do the heavy lifting in the hemp space than in the world of recreational and medicinal marijuana. The most recent iteration of the Farm Bill functionally legalized industrial hemp, but the new Administration may take that legalization a step further. During his campaign, Biden’s team announced climate change efforts that included paying farmers to grow carbon-sequestering crops, of which industrial hemp nicely fits the bill. While Biden did not specifically name hemp, it’s likely that this non-psychoactive crop will take center stage in the US Department of Agriculture’s response to global warming. Biden’s history with recreational and medical marijuana sends a much more conservative signal. During the late 80’s peak of the war on drugs, Biden criticized President H.W. Bush’s tough on crime approach to drug enforcement as “not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand.” Biden argued that Bush’s plan “doesn’t include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, not enough prosecutors to convict them, not enough judges to sentence them, and not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.” A few years later, Biden escalated the war on drugs to his liking by authoring the Senate version of the 1994 Crime Bill, a law that exponentially ramped up mass incarceration. The consequences of the Crime Bill were and continue to be disproportionately experienced by Black families and communities.
Biden's evolution on cannabis
Biden’s tune has shifted more recently, though not as dramatically as some cannabis advocates and criminal justice reformers hoped. Despite the overwhelming popularity of full legalization with the American public, Biden has taken a far more moderate approach, citing the lack of research on cannabis’ impact on public health as his primary inhibition. Biden’s platform includes the decriminalization of cannabis and creating a pathway for the expungement of cannabis-related criminal records. However, it falls short of promising national-wide cannabis legalization. Biden’s pick for Attorney General is Justice Merrick Garland, President-Obama’s rejected nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. Garland’s views on cannabis are mostly a mystery, but it’s likely he will hold more progressive views than Trump’s anti-pot Attorneys General, Jeff Sessions and William Barr. It’s likely that as Attorney General, Garland will defer to individual states’ cannabis laws. Janet Woodcock will serve as interim FDA Commissioner following Biden’s inauguration. Woodcock currently serves as the director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation. In this role, she supported the FDA’s rejection of a 2018 request by a prohibitionist group to block cannabis products from medical marketing. Woodcock stated that the request was “not necessary for the protection of public health.” While the President, Attorney General, and FDA Commissioner aren’t blazing the trail for legal cannabis, a democratically led Congress is much more likely to push for both federally legal weed and social equity.
Congressional leaders are firmly in favor of cannabis legalization
In a statement delivered following the House passage of the MORE Act, a bill that would legalize cannabis and create a pathway for the expungement of cannabis-related criminal records, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the following: “Today, with the bipartisan MORE Act, the House has proudly passed one of the most important criminal justice reform bills in recent history. This momentous step helps end the devastating injustices of the criminalization of marijuana that have disproportionately impacted low-income communities and communities of color, and reflects the overwhelming will of the American people.” Pelosi’s leadership on the passage of the MORE Act during the last legislative session signals future movement in the direction of full, equitable cannabis legalization in the House.
Senate Majority Leader promises action
Chuck Schumer will become the Senate Majority Leader, and if he holds true to his word, that means that cannabis legalization will take a priority. In an interview with Green Enterprise, Schumer promised to push cannabis legalization through a Senate vote. “If I become majority leader, I put this on the floor and it’s likely to pass,” Schumer said during the Green Enterprise interview in reference to the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act he first introduced in 2018. In a statement about the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, Schumer crystallized his position on cannabis legalization: “The time to decriminalize marijuana is now. The new Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act is about giving states the freedom to be the laboratories that they should be and giving Americans – especially women and minority business owners as well as those convicted of simple possession of marijuana intended for personal use- the opportunity to succeed in today’s economy. This legislation is simply the right thing to do and I am hopeful that the balanced approach it takes can earn bipartisan support in Congress and across the country.” Joined by a growing number of Republicans, cannabis legalization may be one of the most readily bipartisan issues the Biden administration and newly elected Congress can address.