Medical marijuana is already available in 36 states. Recreational marijuana is legal in 18, while 27 states have decriminalized its use.
With strong evidence in hand that full legalization works, Biden has everything he needs to make the political case for legalizing marijuana federally.
In doing so, he would be taking steps towards restorative justice and ending the racist policies of the war on drugs, he’d be backing an extremely popular policy that people of all political affiliations agree with, and — simply put — the Democrats would have a policy win they desperately need ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Many Democrats already understand the strategic importance of being the party that fully embraces marijuana legalization. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. (and current U.S. Senate candidate) John Fetterman has called legalization a “bazooka” that both Biden and Donald Trump left unused in 2020.
President Biden should use that bazooka.
Marijuana legalization is extremely popular
Legalization is popular across the country. Deep red South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana in 2020, the same election year they voted heavily for Trump a second time. Blue California legalized weed four years earlier in 2016. And purple Colorado legalized it four years before that, in 2012.
“When South Dakota and California agree on something, that should be a new national law,” said Fetterman.
The numbers are clear too. An April poll from Pew Research found that 60% of adults said marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use and only 8% wanted full prohibition.
Biden must take racial justice more seriously
Currently, two bills that most directly address issues of racial justice, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, are stalled in Congress. They likely will be through the end of the session and into 2022.
However, Congressional Researchers say that legalizing marijuana is something Biden could do without Congress. Biden should consider legalizing marijuana as part of a racial justice agenda, because marijuana legalization — and the current criminality of marijuana — is inextricably tied to racial justice
Additionally, Biden should expunge the records of those previously convicted of nonviolent drug offenses as an acknowledgement of the realities of the war on drugs — that its racist practices were wrong, unjust, and should not be whitewashed in history.
Black Americans are arrested for violating marijuana possession laws at nearly four times the rates of whites despite both racial groups using marijuana at similar rates. That adds up to a lot of arrests. In 2019, more people were arrested for marijuana than were arrested for all violent crimes combined.
87% of Black Americans voted for Biden in 2020. Legalizing marijuana is one way his administration can acknowledge those voters and begin to whittle away at a justice system that is disproportionately punitive to people of color. Especially since Biden has shown that he won’t engage seriously with progressives on police reform issues. and he’s laid out no plans to tackle the continued militarization of police, despite his earlier promises.
Instead, Biden nominated Tom Vilsack to head the Department of Agriculture, despite farmers of color saying his record on civil rights should have disqualified him. He then nominated Rahm Emanuel — the former Mayor of Chicago who helped cover up the murder of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald — to be Ambassador to Japan. Worse yet, Biden threatened to ban menthol cigarettes, a move that would have further empowered law enforcement to harass minority communities.
These decisions have been racially-biased and hurtful. Legalizing marijuana, and expunging the records of those currently and previously incarcerated, would be a justified step towards ameliorating the racialized devastation wrought by the failed war on drugs and a benefit for the Black voters who delivered the White House and Senate to Democrats in 2020. It might also convince voters to come out again in 2022.
Speaking of 2022…
Marijuana legalization could save 2022
Four years ago this week, Trump boasted a 39% approval rating. Right now, President Biden has an abysmal 38% approval rating. That’s a bad sign considering the midterm elections are quickly approaching.
With low approval ratings and few solid policy wins to point to, midterms can be devastating for the party in charge.
A look back at the last four midterm elections — from George W. Bush in 2006 to Obama in 2010 and 2014 to Trump in 2018 (when his approval rating was 39%) — shows major congressional losses for the president’s party.
There aren’t any signs suggesting Biden will be an exception to the pattern especially considering how Democratic establishment darlings like Terry McAuliffe fared in last week’s elections. Not to mention, Biden’s signature promise, Build Back Better, is struggling to stay alive.
The worst outcome for Biden is to see his political agenda go up in a puff of smoke. Marijuana legalization could be his best hope to stave off disaster in 2022.