By Joe Chivers
With the Iowa Caucuses just three weeks away, the race for the Democratic candidate for President in 2020 is heating up, and here at Drug War Stories, we’re not entirely comfortable. Among all the bluster that makes up the debates and the campaign trail, the real issues can all too often end up lost. For us, the most significant ones are those of the candidates’ views and histories with drug law and mass incarceration. Here we dig into the candidates’ pasts, and see just where they really stand on one of the great injustices of our time.
One of the leading candidates for the Democrats in their battle to unseat Trump is former VP Joe Biden. Blessed with a fairly strong speaking style, his debate with Paul Ryan in 2012 is still remembered by many. However, his stances on drug law are far from good. Biden was a Senator for Delaware from 1973-2009, and in the 80s and 90s, was a member and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. While on this committee, he helped to create a number of extremely punitive laws with regard to drugs. Most notably, he even argued that George H.W. Bush’s drug policy did not go far enough, as can be seen in this video from C-Span.
“The President’s plan is not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand,” said Biden. He argued that there weren’t enough police to catch all the “violent thugs,” nor were there “enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.” In one bill, written by Biden, he said there were “51 offences for which there would be death.”
According to Vox, and Slate, Biden has helped to create a number of pieces of legislature that are at odds with any right-thinking person’s views on drug policy. There’s the Comprehensive Control Act that enhanced powers of civil asset forfeiture, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that put harsher penalties on crack cocaine than on powder, disproportionately affecting African-Americans. Finally, we have the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which helped vastly increase the US prison population. Notably, such harsh penalties did not apply to his children. When his daughter Ashley, then 17, was arrested for possession of pot, prosecutors did not pursue charges. His son, Hunter, joined the Navy Reserves in 2012, after getting two waivers, one for being over the age of 40, and another related to a drug offence he committed as a young man. One month into his service, he was discharged after testing positive for cocaine. The hypocrisy is incredibly brazen.
While Biden has recently admitted that he “may not have always gotten things right,” it’s starkly noticeable that he has only said this now that he wants to become President. Biden may not be the man he was in the 80s and 90s, but we can only ever be judged on our pasts, particularly when running for the office of President of the United States, the most powerful position in the world. As such, he has shown himself to be a man far from his current TV-friendly image, instead, he has been shown to be a man capable of outlandish cruelty and legislative stupidity.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has gained a reputation as a progressive, and on the topic of drugs, this mostly holds true. Buttigieg has voiced support for not just decriminalizing, but legalizing marijuana for recreational use. His reasoning is sound too, arguing that the current laws simply lead to more people of color being imprisoned for non-violent drug offences. When it comes to the opioid epidemic, Buttigieg has argued that more funding should be devoted to treatment options, according to On The Issues.
Mass incarceration has also come into Buttigieg’s sights, with his record largely solid here, too. In April, he stated that ex-felons should be allowed to vote, and that there should be steps taken “toward expungement and reversal of ridiculously long sentences” for drug possession. He has also, according to Vox, supported closing prisons and investing in social services and diversion efforts. However, all is not completely rosy. Buttigieg’s views on felons currently incarcerated are behind Sanders’. Sanders argued that those currently in prison should still be allowed to vote, as they are in Vermont and Maine. The former mayor’s response was as follows.
“Part of the punishment when you are convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights. You lose your freedom. And I think during that period it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.”
While not an uncommon opinion, it is one that seems to contradict his other views on incarcerated people. Should someone, awaiting the expungement of their drug possession offense, not have the right to vote? This is the only major issue with Buttigieg’s views on drugs and mass incarceration, but it’s an irritating one that shows a kind of fallacy in his thinking.
Like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders has been in politics for a long, long time. However, unlike Biden, Sanders has a solid history in drug policy, particularly since becoming a well-known political figure. Given an A+ grade by NORML for his history on drug policy. In 2015, Sanders became the first major presidential candidate to support full legalization of marijuana, filing the first ever Senate bill to end federal criminalization just days later. Sanders has also supported pieces of legislation such as the Marijuana Justice Act, that would remove weed’s listing as a controlled substance, as well as punish states that applied the law discriminatorily, and has voted in favor of preventing federal authorities from interfering in states where medical marijuana is legal.
These stances are consistently backed up by Sanders’ own writings, too. On The Issues, by Snopes, lists numerous such quotes and opinions by the Senator. In addition to his stance on marijuana, he argues that opioid addiction should be seen as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal one, preferring treatment to jail time. In the 2016 NBC presidential primary debate, he argued for investment in jobs and education, “not in jails and incarceration.”
In other areas, Sanders is just as strong: in 2001 he voted against the use of the US military on border patrols and setting up a task force to deal with drug interdiction. In 1998, he voted against enforcing random drug tests on federal employees. In marijuana banking, he has been progressive too, arguing for immunity for banks that provide services to lawful marijuana businesses. Probably the most cut-and-dried candidate on this list, the only fly in the ointment is that he did vote in favor of Biden’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. When brought up on this topic, Sanders argued that he voted in favor of the act because it included the Violence Against Women Act and banned certain assault weapons, but that he was still opposed to large portions of the bill. A case of the lesser of two evils appears to have won the day, here.
Another progressive favorite, Elizabeth Warren has a fairly solid record on drug policy. Not as good as Sanders’, but not as pitiful as Biden’s. In May, Warren rolled out an ambitious policy to deal with the opioid epidemic. The proposal would allocate $100 billion to be spent over 10 years to fight the epidemic. According to Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert from Stanford, quoted in Vox, the proposal is the only one that “really grasps the nettle of how big the problem is.”
On marijuana, Warren now appears to be in favor of progressive laws. A lead sponsor on the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, that would amend the Controlled Substances Act to stop federal authorities from interfering in state legal marijuana business, she’s nailed her colors to the mast. The STATES Act would also address marijuana banking. Other pieces of legislation backed by Warren include the CARERS Act that was designed to prevent federal authorities going after medical marijuana patients and the previously-mentioned Marijuana Justice Act.
When discussing mass incarceration, Warren has strong, progressive opinions. Writing in a post on Medium, Warren argued for an end to mass incarceration and a ban on “private prisons and detention facilities.”
Once again, Warren’s only real problem is her vacillation on some issues in the past. In 2012, according to On the Issues, Warren said that she opposes the outright legalization of marijuana. However, compared to Biden and Harris, Warren’s record is sparkling.
Andrew Yang, an attorney and entrepreneur, made waves with his support for Universal Basic Income, or as he calls it, the Freedom Dividend, but his policies on drugs are startlingly liberal. In addition to supporting the legalization of weed and expungement of previous convictions for it, Yang has also supported the decriminalization of opiates for personal use. In response to the opioid crisis, Yang has said that those caught with small amounts of the drugs should be referred to treatment, explicitly citing Portugal’s historical example. Describing addiction as a disease, rather than a crime, Yang also explicitly calls out pharmaceutical companies’ lies about the safety of the drugs. He also seeks to make rehabilitation treatment much more affordable, as well as providing states with grants to run treatment programs with.
Mass incarceration also appears to be a hot topic for Yang. Particularly worthy of his ire are the ideas of mandatory minimum sentences, and private prisons. He has said that should he become President, he would end the use of for-profit, private prisons, fund reintegration programs, and potentially reform the harshness of felony laws. According to On The Issues, Yang would also release those identified as non-violent drug offenders early. Yang is not arguing for total decriminalization, as he still has problems with the idea of decriminalizing cocaine, but he’s decidedly left-libertarian. A refreshing thing to see in American politics, to be sure.
Happily, this election really seems to have drawn out the anti-prohibitionists in the Democratic Party, at least, when it comes to pot. Support for decriminalization (at the very least) is running high, and, should one of these candidates win next November, we could be in for a seismic shift in how the United States treats cannabis use. While Joe Biden claims to back decriminalization, his past haunts his bid. Can you trust a man who once vocally advocated for mass incarceration to be in charge of marijuana policy? Particularly when his plan involves moving it to a Schedule II substance, which could essentially destroy marijuana businesses across the country?
Bernie Sanders is a fantastic candidate for those who care about drug policy. Not only does he support full legalization, but he is also a proponent of seeing the opioid addiction epidemic as a health, rather than a criminal problem. There’s still one or two minor historical nitpicks that can be made, but overall, he appears to be a strong and principled candidate on this topic. So too, does Andrew Yang. While it’s his Freedom Stipend that has been grabbing headlines, his support for a Portugal-style decriminalization of opiates, with referral to treatment, rather than jail time, is fantastic. While Elizabeth Warren’s record is not as good as Sanders’, she’s nevertheless a solid candidate. The STATES and CARERS Acts are both excellent pieces of legislation, while her plan to spend $100 billion on fighting the opioid epidemic is superb. She has also been outspokenly opposed to private, for-profit prisons and mass incarceration.
Drug War Stories’ Endorsement
Given their histories and stated positions today, while we at Drug War Stories are satisfied with several of the front running Democratic candidates’ views on the Drug War, we endorse Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party nomination based on his many decades of consistent opposition to the Drug War.
Joe is a print and online journalist, based in Europe, who specializes in writing on war and social issues.