Biden, Democrats Reject Cannabis Legalization for Party Platform but Back Decriminalization

Last month, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and former rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) released policy recommendations as part of their “Unity Task Force” in an effort to unite the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party. Although the so-called “Unity Plan” is not the official Democratic Party platform, the recommendations did create a foundation for what the party platform would look like at the recently held Democratic National Convention.

While the Unity Plan boldly states that “[i]t is past time to end the failed ‘War on Drugs,’” the policy on cannabis mostly followed Biden’s more moderate approach to the drug. The overall recommendation is to decriminalize, rather than legalize, cannabis use on the federal level, though they do support legalization of medical marijuana. Legalization of recreational marijuana would be left to the states. Importantly, the plan fails to address the lack of banking services available to state-legal cannabis companies. The focus, rather, is on criminal justice reform. Meanwhile, the SAFE Banking Act has been held up in the Senate since December.

On July 27, Democratic National Committee delegates voted 106-50 against including cannabis legalization in the party’s official platform, but did leave in place language backing decriminalization. A draft of the 2020 Democratic Party Platform states that “Democrats will decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level. We will support legalization of medical marijuana, and believe states should be able to make their own decisions about recreational use. The Justice Department should not launch federal prosecutions of conduct that is legal at the state level. All past criminal convictions for cannabis use should be automatically expunged.” The vice presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), has also co-sponsored the MORE Act in 2019, which would decriminalize cannabis and expunge low-level possession convictions.

Despite its shortcomings, there’s no doubt that the Democrats and Biden’s plan is better than what is available today under the Trump administration. Biden has made recent comments suggesting that he has more favorable views toward cannabis than President Trump. Biden's efforts to decriminalize cannabis federally would have powerful ramifications over the long term.

The decriminalization of cannabis would shift the perception of its usage from one of criminality to a health issue. Additionally, decriminalization paired with the expungement of cannabis-related crimes, would remove barriers to housing and employment for those who have been convicted of non-violent offense of drug use. Most importantly, as states have shown, decriminalization often precedes and is a major step towards the eventual legalization of cannabis for recreational use.

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