‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott’s opinion column on cannabis politics and culture.
As we near the three-month mark of his administration, President Biden’s cannabis policy has so far been defined by inaction and unforced errors. Cannabis is so absent that the White House’s official Year One Drug Policy Priorities list—issued on April 1, but not a joke, and yet also a joke—doesn’t even mention the word “cannabis.”
Firing five White House staffers for past cannabis use sent a message: The stigma, scorn, and arrests will continue on Biden’s watch.
What’s going on? Earlier this week, when the San Francisco Chronicle asked Vice President Kamala Harris about legalization, she said, “We haven’t yet taken that on” because the White House has been focused on “getting shots into arms” and other essentials. “That has been all-consuming,” she said.
Fair enough. The Biden/Harris team got 150 million shots in 150 million arms in 75 days—a huge success that deserves widespread praise.
But governments are built to tackle many issues at once. The federal government employs more than two million people. Not all of them are working on vaccine logistics. In fact, many of them spend their days carrying out the worst cruelties of cannabis prohibition.
Wasted time, pointless firings, cruel sentences
Some of President Biden’s direct reports, in fact, wasted precious days last month firing five White House staffers for being honest about their past cannabis consumption—a political own-goal that made sense to exactly no one.
Other Biden employees continue to ruin lives by imposing prison sentences that we’d call human rights violations if they happened overseas. Last month the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts, who works for Biden’s attorney general, sent a Boston-area plumber to federal prison for 12 years. As Leafly’s Dave Howard noted, the plumber’s crime wasn’t murder or assault. It was growing weed without a license.
That same month, police in Allen, Texas, arrested Marvin Scott III for minor cannabis possession. Four hours later, after being choked, pepper sprayed, and blinded with a restraining hood, Scott died in police custody. The only reason Marvin Scott was in police custody—the only reason he was killed—was the two ounces of weed police found in his pocket.
This is happening under Biden’s command
Federal law didn’t directly cause Marvin Scott’s death. But there’s a strong chain of custody leading from the Biden White House to the death of a man in a Texas holding cell.
That custody began with President Biden’s decision to fire five staffers for consuming a product that’s legal for all adults in 17 states. Presidential power is expressed in word and symbol as much as in policy and law. The firing of the Biden Five sent a clear message from the President: These people are unworthy of my trust.
Those firings reinforced a program of racism and forced stigmatization carried out by the federal government since the 1930s. Congress outlawed cannabis in 1937 based on Harry Anslinger’s bag of racist beans. Since then, that unjust federal criminalization has been upheld by convincing generations of Americans that people who enjoy cannabis are dirty criminals who get what they deserve. In the 1980s, D.A.R.E. taught children to report their pot-smoking parents to the cops. In the 1990s, the Clinton White House secretly paid network television producers to depict cannabis consumers as shiftless losers.
In the 2020s, President Biden is firing White House staffers and treating weed-growing plumbers like murderers.
Stigma is the soil in which cruelty thrives
Through his actions, Biden sent a nod and a wink to cops nationwide, giving them the green light to keep arresting 545,000 Marvin Scotts every year.
Cannabis stigma kills. It killed Marvin Scott. It killed Philando Castile. It killed Keith Lamont Scott.
He provided political cover for his old friends in the Senate, giving them permission to stall legalization bills and continue the worst atrocities of the failed War on Drugs. Barely three months into his term, Joe Biden is continuing the vicious narrative that stigmatizes cannabis consumers as immoral, unclean, shifty, and dangerous.
Cannabis stigma kills. It killed Marvin Scott. It killed Philando Castile and Keith Lamont Scott. The Minneapolis cop who shot Castile said the purported smell of marijuana from Castile’s car made him fear for his life. Fear for his life: The idea is preposterous to anyone who’s actually enjoyed cannabis. But it makes sense to many who’ve been trained by the government to fear marijuana and denigrate the millions of normal people who consume it.
75% of Americans are done with prohibition
Fortunately, more and more Americans are waking up from the government’s eight decades of deception. Three-quarters of registered voters now believe federal prohibition should end, and 17 states have legalized cannabis for all adults.
It’s time for President Biden to see prohibition for what it is—and to recognize America’s hard-working, law-abiding cannabis consumers for who we are. We are decent people who deserve the same respect and dignity accorded to people who, for whatever reason, choose not to enjoy cannabis.
Enough with the stigma. Enough with the firings, the arrests, the reputational smears, and the police killings. End federal prohibition now.
Is President Biden busy? Of course. All presidents are. But while he attends to other issues, more than 545,000 Americans continue to be needlessly, senselessly, arrested every year. Some, like Marvin Scott, die during those arrests.
His chance to act is coming soon
Perhaps Biden is waiting for Congress to take the lead on legalization. If so, he’ll have a chance to step up and proclaim his support for true reform soon enough. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is preparing an all-encompassing legalization bill that may be introduced later this month. It’s expected to be the next iteration of the MORE Act, which passed the House but failed in the Senate late last year.
Joe Biden caused this mess years ago as a young senator who believed he was doing the right thing. But it was a mistake. His crime legislation opened America’s age of mass incarceration. He was a driving force behind civil asset forfeiture, mandatory minimum sentences, and the militarization of our police.
If Schumer’s bill moves forward, President Biden will have the opportunity to correct those mistakes and atone for his misguided work.
So far he has chosen not to. He’s busy, they say.