Former Vice President Joe Biden is making another run for the White House, he announced on Thursday. The former senator, who served as chair of the influential Judiciary Committee that helped shape U.S. drug policy during an era of heightened scaremongering and criminalization, was among the most prominent Democratic drug warriors in Congress for decades.
And while many 2020 Democratic candidates have evolved significantly on drug policy—and particularly marijuana reform—over the years, Biden has barely budged. While he’s recognized the long-term harms of certain pieces of legislation he supported and has made some efforts to attempt to repair that damage, overall he’s maintained a firm opposition to cannabis legalization—a stance that sets him far apart from every other major Democratic contender.
Biden served as vice president under President Barack Obama, and he’s expressed pride that he was entrusted to oversee matters of criminal justice from the White House. To the administration’s credit, the Obama Justice Department was responsible for enacting a few major drug policy changes—especially, the Cole memo, which cleared the way for state-legal marijuana businesses to operate largely without federal interference. But it was also during Obama’s time in office that the department declined to put different cannabis laws on the books, rejecting petitions to reschedule the plant under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
A look at Biden’s record on marijuana policy over past decades reveals a politician whose views on drugs are mostly set in stone and increasingly out of touch with lawmakers in his party and voters across the political spectrum. He’s sponsored some of the country’s most punitive drug legislation, including the notorious 1994 crime bill. In some cases, he has addressed the consequences of his anti-drug legislative activism. But a closer examination exposes patterns: he has long maintained that drugs should be illegal across the board, that the criminal justice system is well-equipped to handle drug offenders and that regulating marijuana is a mistake.
Here’s where Joe Biden stands on cannabis and drug policy.
Legislation And Policy Actions
The 1980s was a time of extraordinary upheaval for U.S. drug policy, with lawmakers pushing numerous bills meant to scare people away from using controlled substances by way of propaganda and threats of incarceration. Biden was among the loudest and most extreme voices backing anti-drug measures. While there has been a shift in tone over the years, his track record will likely be a point of contention on the campaign trail.
Biden introduced the Comprehensive Narcotics Control Act of 1986. The wide-ranging anti-drug legislation called for the establishment of a cabinet position to develop the federal government’s drug enforcement policies—a role that fits the description of the “drug czar” position, a term the senator coined in 1982 and which was subsequently created to lead the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
“We need one person to call the shots,” Biden said at the time, while also criticizing the Reagan administration’s anti-drug efforts, saying “their commitment is minuscule in terms of dollars.”
The bill would have also expanded Justice Department authority to seize assets in drug cases, impose mandatory minimum sentences for offenses involving certain amounts of controlled substances, increase other drug penalties and add new substances to the CSA. It also authorized appropriations for the U.S. Department of Defense for “enhanced drug enforcement assistance”—an early indication of what would become an increasingly militarized drug war—and asked the military to “prepare a list of defense facilities which can be used as detention facilities for felons.”
Further, the legislation would have required the secretary of the Interior to create a program to eradicate marijuana on Indian territory. It also included a provision for Congress to urge the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs to create a new international convention “against illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances,” and called for “more effective implementation of existing conventions relating to narcotics.” It also proposed setting aside money for the development of “herbicides for use in aerial eradication of coca,” which would later become a key part of the controversial Plan Colombia program.
In 1989, Biden filed a bill that would have required the U.S. to propose a program to the United Nations where member states could have their debts partially forgiven in exchange for committing to use resources to reduce international drug trafficking. One example of something a country could do to reap those rewards would be to “increase seizures” of drugs including marijuana.
Another expansive anti-drug bill the senator introduced was called the Federal Crime Control Act of 1989. Among other things, the legislation would have expanded asset forfeiture authorities, required individuals charged for certain drug crimes to be held for sentencing or appeal rather than released on bail and mandated that the attorney general “aggressively use criminal, civil, and other equitable remedies…against drug offenders.”
It proposed authorizing the president to declare that a state or part of a state is a “drug disaster area,” which would be entitled to grants of up to $50 million “for any single drug-related emergency.”
Under the legislation, the Justice Department would establish a new division dedicated to maintaining or increasing “the level of enforcement activities with respect to criminal racketeering, narcotics trafficking, money laundering, asset forfeiture, international crime, and civil enforcement.” It would be directed to “establish at least 20 field offices of the Division to be known as Organized Crime and Dangerous Drug Strike Forces” and “at least ten International Drug Enforcement Teams.”
Biden also introduced the National Drug Control Strategy Act in 1990. It included a number of jarring provisions meant to deter drug use, including the establishment of “military-style boot camp prisons” that could be used as alternative sentencing options for people convicted of drug-related offenses who tested positive for a controlled substance at the time of an arrest or following an arrest.
The legislation also called for a requirement that people pass a drug test as a condition of probation or parole before a sentence is imposed, and also subsequently submit to at least two drug tests. It would also require federal employees working in a division that deals with children to pass a background check, specifying that any drug conviction on a person’s record is barred from employment.
Then there’s the propaganda provision of the bill, under which the director of the ONDCP would be required to “provide resources to assist members of the motion picture and television industries in the production of programs that carry anti-drug messages.”
If that wasn’t enough, the bill would also have authorized appropriations under the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act to be used to train and assist military and law enforcement in their anti-drug production and trafficking operations. A separate provision would have encouraged the Central Intelligence Agency to enhance human intelligence that could be used to combat international drug trafficking.
Biden introduced a bill on capital punishment in 1990 that was later amended to include a provision known as the Drug Kingpin Death Penalty Act, which called for the imposition of capital punishment for anyone who killed someone while carrying out a federal drug offenses and was the head of a criminal enterprise who qualified for mandatory life imprisonment.
“There is now a death penalty,” he said later, in a 1991 floor speech. “If you are a major drug dealer, involved in the trafficking of drugs, and murder results in your activities, you go to death.”
In that same speech, he touted the expansion of civil asset forfeiture, saying the “government can take everything you own, from your car to your house to your bank account.”
The proposal also increased penalties for certain drug offenses committed near schools or colleges and directed the attorney general to “develop a model program of strategies and tactics for establishing and maintaining drug-free school zones.” It declared that drug offenses committed by juveniles would be treated “as offenses warranting adult prosecution,” set aside funds to create a national drug and related crime tip hotline and authorized “payment of awards for information or assistance leading to a civil or criminal forfeiture.”
The Senate passed that amended legislation, and Biden was among those who voted in favor of it.
The Biden-Thurmond Violent Crime Control Act of 1991, which the senator sponsored alongside segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC), proposed prohibiting people with “serious drug misdemeanor” convictions from purchasing firearms and creating a mandatory five year penalty for firearms possession by “serious drug offenders.”
An amended version of the bill, which Biden voted in favor of, also made federal marijuana laws more punitive by reducing “from 100 to 50 the number of marihuana plants needed to qualify for specified penalties” and stipulated that people convicted of three felony drug charges should handed a sentence of life imprisonment without release.
Additionally, the bill would have increased penalties for the use of a controlled substance in public housing, expanded the definition of “drug paraphernalia” under the CSA to include things like scales and syringes and prohibited the advertisement of Schedule I drugs such as cannabis.
In 1993, Biden filed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a bill that would have required the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to establish a drug testing program for federal offenders on “post-conviction release.” It also would’ve increased penalties for those convicted of drug distribution in “drug-free” zones and ban advertising “which aims to illegally solicit or sell drugs.”
It would also direct state and federal court clerks to “report to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and prosecutors the name and taxpayer identification number of anyone accused of a drug, money laundering, or racketeering crime who posts cash bail exceeding $10,000.”
The following year he filed separate legislation of the same name. While that version was indefinitely postponed in the Senate, the House companion bill—the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, also known colloquially as the crime bill—passed both chambers and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in September 1994. Biden voted in favor of the legislation, which has since become known as one of the largest drivers of mass incarceration in the U.S.
Among other things, the wide-ranging anti-crime bill established the aforementioned federal drug testing program for prisoners on release, amended the federal code to make certain drug-related murders punishable by death, enhanced penalties for drug dealing in “drug free” zones, allowed the president to declare “drug emergency” areas and to “take action to alleviate the emergency” and required courts to submit information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about juveniles who are convicted of certain drug crimes.