Why Biden's marijuana decriminalization move is a BFD
It's popular, but more than that it will help a lot of people.
By Noah Berlatsky
My wife was out buying cannabis when I heard about Joe Biden’s move to legalize cannabis.
That sounds like the set up for a joke of some sort, but it isn’t. My wife has major chronic pain from migraine and cluster headaches. Without cannabis, she’d spend days at a time unable to function because of debilitating agony. Illinois legalizing cannabis turned her pain management from an expensive, time-consuming challenge into an easy car trip. It’s improved her quality of life immeasurably.
Reforming cannabis laws is sometimes treated as a joke or as a triviality. But it’s neither. Marijuana criminalization has had nightmarish effects for people who suffer from chronic pain, nausea, PTSD, and a range of other medical conditions. It’s also led to the hyper-policing and needless imprisonment of millions of people — especially Black people. Biden’s decision to roll back federal cannabis laws to the extent he is able, like his decision to forgive student loans, will concretely benefit large numbers of people, and will make the US a less repressive, less cruel place.
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We’ll get into the specifics of the steps Biden took Thursday a bit later, but it’s worth noting he’s an unlikely champion of cannabis reform. During the 2020 primary, he was the candidate least enthusiastic about changing cannabis laws. He’s also part of the only age cohort — those 75 and older — where a majority of people oppose legalization.
Still, there have been some signals that change might be coming. Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman very publicly lobbied Biden to move towards decriminalization in August, and Fetterman staffers said the two discussed marijuana reform during a meeting.
There’s a very straightforward reason Fetterman’s lobbying might have been effective. It’s an issue where the politics are hard to argue with.
Biden’s always tried to be in sync with his party, and fully 72 percent of Democrats support full legalization, with another 23 percent supporting medical marijuana — only five percent of Democrats oppose legalization.
It’s also an issue which splits Republicans; 47 percent support full legalization, with another 40 percent supporting medical marijuana. Overall, 60 percent of the public supports full legalization, and only 8 percent supports full criminalization. Cannabis is considerably more popular than Joe Biden himself, whose current approval is only 42.7 percent in 538’s aggregator.
What Biden’s decriminalization actions mean, briefly explained
So Biden’s move towards decriminalization makes sense. Unfortunately, he can’t simply legalize cannabis by himself. He has done “about as much” as he can unilaterally, according to University of Denver professor Sam Kamin on Twitter.
Biden’s first step was to pardon all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession. This will not free anyone from prison because currently no one is serving time for simple marijuana possession. The action, however, will benefit some 6,500 people charged with federal cannabis convictions and thousands more charged in the District of Columbia. That’s important because, as Biden has said, people with criminal convictions can have trouble getting “employment, housing or educational opportunities.” The pardon will allow them to move on with their lives.
Biden also urged governors to pardon state possession offenses. Some, like JB Pritzker in Illinois, have already done so as part of statewide marijuana legalization. Others, like governors in deep red states, probably won’t. Still, making it a Democratic priority could help move pardons forward in some places.
The second thing Biden did is to start the process of trying to reschedule marijuana. Advocates have been begging Democratic presidents to do this for years (this excellent Brookings explainer is from 2015). Obama dragged his feet. But Biden took the initiative.
So what is rescheduling? Currently, cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug, which means according to the federal government it has a high potential for abuse and no medical uses. It can’t be dispensed with a prescription, and you can’t really do research on it. It’s got a big “keep off!” sign on it, and if you touch it you turn into a pumpkin (or a criminal).
Congress can change the schedule of a drug, but, as we know, Republicans in Congress will filibuster anything and everything; you can’t tie your shoes in the current congressional environment, much less reschedule cannabis.
There’s also an administrative path, though. Biden has started that by recommending that HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra file a petition to reschedule cannabis with the attorney general. The HHS and attorney general then review scientific evidence and possible social harms and come back with a recommendation of rescheduling.
The societal benefits of decriminalization
There are a number of reasons that federal legalization is the right step. The first is medical. Even though research into marijuana is difficult when it’s classified as a Schedule 1 drug, there’s still a lot of evidence that cannabis can have major benefits to those suffering from a range of ailments. There’s increasing consensus that cannabis can relieve some types of chronic pain. Access to medical cannabis was linked to a 64 percent drop in opioid use in one study, which is important since opioid side effects can be much more severe.
Cannabis can also reduce nausea, which can be especially helpful for cancer patients on chemotherapy. There’s evidence that it can be effective in helping patients with PTSD. And It’s been found to be helpful in treating sleep disorders. (My mother-in-law suffers from those; my wife was buying her cannabis too.)
There are only four states — South Carolina, Kansas, Idaho, and Wyoming — where cannabis remains fully criminalized. So in theory at least, most people in the US have some access to cannabis for medical purposes.
But even in states where cannabis is fully legalized, federal laws, and occasional federal threats, lead doctors to hesitate in prescribing it or recommending it to patients. This is exacerbated by the fact that federal law makes research on cannabis difficult, so doctors worry that the science is not solid enough to recommend it as a treatment. Federal legalization would normalize the use of cannabis for many ailments, and help doctors determine when and how to recommend it for people. It could help millions get relief from pain, nausea, and sleeplessness.
Federal cannabis legalization is also important as a criminal justice measure. There is little evidence that cannabis use leads to violence, addiction, or serious harms. Legalizing cannabis in Colorado and Washington didn’t lead to higher rates of use among teenagers and children. More, legalizing cannabis actually decreased crime in Colorado by six percent because criminal cartels were weakened, just as they were following the repeal of prohibition.
Cannabis does little harm, but arresting people for cannabis can cause great hardship. People convicted even of a misdemeanor see their annual earnings reduced by 16 percent on average. More than 800,000 people are arrested for marijuana use and possession every year; even if not all are convicted, that’s a lot of lost earnings for no benefit to society.
And like every aspect of criminal justice in the US, the law is applied in a way that harms Black people most. There’s no evidence that Black people use cannabis more than white people, but Black people are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis use than are whites.
People 15-29 are especially likely to be arrested for cannabis, and Black men under 30 are the group most impacted. Biden’s move towards legalization, then, is partially an effort to help two reliable Democratic constituencies: young people and Black people. Those are groups which helped elect him; the least he can do is cease using the apparatus of the state to target them.
Cannabis legalization at the federal level will have concrete benefits. I know it will help my wife and others with chronic pain. But it’s also hopeful in that it’s a real step away from the logic of mass incarceration, policing, and moral panic which has held politicians in an apparently unbreakable grip for the last 40 years.
The drug war and mass incarceration were built on an assumption that the more things you criminalize, and the more people you police, the safer we all are. Changing course on cannabis is an acknowledgement that that is not true. Sometimes — often! — policing makes things worse, not better. Today cannabis, tomorrow — psychedelics? Sex work?
If we can see that putting people in prison causes, rather than solves, problems, we can maybe start moving towards a society that is less paranoid, less violent, and more free.
Aaron’s Clip Room
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Herschel Walker’s media availability did not go well
Things have only gotten worse for Herschel Walker since Wednesday, when I wrote about the scandal surrounding his reported payment for an abortion. As I detailed then, Walker initially played dumb about the whole thing, but that blew up in his face Thursday when the woman involved told the Daily Beast she not only had an abortion with Walker, she had a child with him too. Yet he’s still out there denying everything.
Nothing Walker has said about the story makes sense. That’s largely because nothing he says makes much sense. But on Thursday he thought it was a good idea to do a press gaggle anyway.
Walker can get away with shoveling BS to the Hugh Hewitts and Brian Kilmeades of the world, but just a few questions from actual reporters completely exposed his incoherence. Watch:
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