John Fetterman, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, now a Senate candidate and one of the best liberal communicators to come along in decades, met with President Joe Biden in early September with an urgent plea: before the midterms, decriminalize marijuana. The meeting came after Fetterman tweeted a heartbreaking story about a black eye doctor in Pennsylvania who had gone to prison and lost his medical license for growing marijuana plants for his wife, who had become addicted to opioids to manage chronic pain. Soon after that meeting, the White House rejected Fetterman’s excellent suggestion in a public statement.
That’s a mistake. Biden should legalize marijuana now.
Always socially conservative, Biden used to oppose significant changes to federal drug laws. In this, he was aligned with Barack Obama, whose administration called the idea that weed was harmless “a false notion” and strongly opposed its legalization.
But Biden has evolved in response to a shifting culture. In his 2020 election campaign, he supported marijuana decriminalization, and that year the same position was part of the official Democratic Party platform. In April of this year, he freed more than seventy people serving time for weed-related offenses. Then, this summer, the president said he didn’t believe anyone should be in prison for marijuana use. But the federal law remains unchanged, and the president has the power, by executive action, to fix it. There are a variety of paths he could follow; the president could “reschedule” the drug under the Controlled Substances Act, he could direct federal prosecutors to respect state and local marijuana laws, or, with all the lawyers in his administration, he could do something more creative. He needs to make a move and go big — and do it before November.
Biden has access to many highly paid consultants, but we’ll give him some free political advice anyway: marijuana legalization is popular. More than two-thirds of Americans now support it (68 percent), compared to just 12 percent in the carefree hippy days of 1970. Nineteen states and many more towns and cities have legalized marijuana, and that number is likely to increase next month with legal weed on the ballot in five states and many more municipalities — including five cities in Texas and thirty-one Rhode Island towns. Although courts and Congress seem to resist it, when voters are allowed to weigh in directly, they tend to approve.
The cause is not only popular with liberals and progressives: it’s bigger than that. Many red states have at least partly decriminalized marijuana, including Montana, Mississippi, and South Dakota.
Indeed, if Democrats don’t go big on cannabis legalization this year, they risk ceding this crowd-pleasing policy to the Right. Right-wing billionaire Charles Koch favors weed legalization and has been pouring money into organizations and candidates to push the cause. Even AOC’s pro-MAGA opponent, Tina Forte, who supported the January 6 craziness — and is not going beat the democratic socialist congresswoman no matter how hard Newsmax and other far-right media try to plug her candidacy — opposes prison for nonviolent offenders. Of course, it’s good that many conservatives support this humane and sensible reform, but Biden shouldn’t allow them to own the issue.
It would also be politically smart for Biden to decriminalize weed because it was a campaign promise. Given that it was in the party platform the year he ran and an official campaign position, voters have every right to expect him to do it and to be disappointed if he doesn’t. Politicians renege on promises all the time, but unless they’ve changed their minds for a demonstrably good reason, failing to deliver makes them look weak, breeds cynicism, and depresses voter turnout. It was smart of Biden to deliver on student debt, but marijuana decriminalization might be even more popular.
Finally, Biden should decriminalize marijuana because it’s the right thing to do. Between 2010 and 2018, more than six million people were arrested for marijuana possession. Imprisoning people for a pleasant indulgence — or an entrepreneurial endeavor — harmful to no one is pointless and cruel, destroys families, and undermines working-class communities. Last year, some 6,600 people were arrested for weed by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency alone and of course many more by state and local authorities. Black people are more likely than white people to be arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned for marijuana, just the sort of disparity Democrats claim to care about. Weed legalization provides an excellent opportunity for them to do more than care.
Besides, weed may be a social good. Many of us enjoy it, a point that can get lost in these earnest debates. As well, it’s a proven remedy for a wide variety of afflictions, including chronic pain, side effects of chemotherapy, migraine headaches, and the stress of life under capitalism. In places that have legalized marijuana, the policy also seems to be associated with declines in obesity and in opioid use, as well as fewer opioid-related emergency room visits.
Marijuana legalization can only help Biden and those Democrats up for reelection next month. Better yet, it will help millions of working-class people escape prison and racist police harassment. The president should take control of his flailing legacy and act now.