The Ballad of Biden’s Drug War

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PHOTO: RichieC, Creative Commons

I saw Joe Biden once, back in 2008, at a U.S. Senate hearing he chaired on the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. With only a few senators present, Biden appeared as thoughtful and engaged as I expect career politicians can be. He didn’t strike me as willing to throw in his lot with the Marijuana Policy Project, but he was open enough to Families Against Mandatory Minimums that I had hope.

Six years later, like a lot of Americans, I realize that I’d hoped too much.

ONDCP_SealJoe Biden, you see, is a populist democrat. Center-left, but able (nay, eager) to be a progressive champion if he thinks the public is with him. They were with him for the drug war. Biden joined the Senate back in the 1973, able to watch Jimmy Carter’s White House stumble, then totally fall, on an attempt to decriminalize marijuana. Biden would spend the  80s helping write legislation creating the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) or “drug czar’s” office.

In Biden’s defense, a bi-partisan victory and being hailed as “tough on crime” were things democrats longed for in the 80s, along with perfect hair. Biden believed – and saw to it – that many senate democrats believed that opposing legalization and harm reduction was the populist position.

So it was. But upon seeing him in 2008, I sensed he noticed not only mandatory minimums weren’t working, but that the drug war was quite racist, costly, and not working either.

America was already falling out of love with marijuana prohibition by 2008 – except we knew it and Biden didn’t. Later in the year, Barack Obama had to appeal to two groups as he ran for president. First, independents and young people thirsting for post-partisanship and someone genuinely different. Lots of legalization support here.

Then, there was the political establishment: older, whiter…A president with a different pigment was different enough, thank you. This was the “is anyone really in prison for pot?” crowd.

Enter Biden, that populist progressive. Sure, he said some foolish things, or plagiarized some fine ideas.

But, pardon my french, Biden is a honky. And he proved to moderate Dems and older independents that things wouldn’t be THAT different.

I was secretly thrilled to see ol’ Joe on the ticket in 2008 because I thought he might use that open mindedness I saw a glimmer of to bring to bear on drug policy. In fact, I wrote the presidential transition team and Biden by the year’s end with my ideas for immediate scaling back, and eventual review and reform of most drug policy.

More than five years later, I’m certain my advice never reached the VP.

Joe Biden in 1972

Joe Biden in 1972

As recently as 2010, Biden described pot as a “gateway drug.” This month he told Time Magazine’s Zeke Miller “I am not only the guy who did the crime bill and the drug czar, but I’m also the guy who spent years when I was chairman of the Judiciary Committee and chairman of [the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] trying to change drug policy relative to cocaine, for example, crack and powder.”

Biden forgot, unlike me, that the reform he’s claiming didn’t actually happen until 2010 when he was already VP. He also reminded us America is too broke to try to bust every pot smoker and that the administration supports “smart enforcement.”

How reassuring that the NSA won’t dispatch agents to every street corner for pot. But the claim reeks of former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a mediocre mental health advocate now trying to champion a “third way” between legalization and prohibition. The Vice President’s answers show his read of the populist position is that the war on pot should stay the course, albeit with some shorter jail time and more coerced treatment and fines.

It’s disappointing coming from such a swell head of hair.

NixonMaoThere’s a motto from American politics: “only Nixon could go to China.” This came about after the president’s 1972 trip to re-establish relations after a quarter century long diplomatic stalemate between the U.S. and China. Nixon had spent most of his political life being tough on Communists. Where other politicians could have been easily painted as soft on Communism, Nixon couldn’t. It was this reputation that allowed Nixon to meet with Chinese leader ‪Mao Zedong. It was a historic and fruitful meeting.

Biden is halfway to a China of his own making. He’s between the bombed out ruins of laws he’s tweaked or championed (but don’t work) and the dense jungles of his lingering doubts of regulated legalization. Looking back and forth, Biden hopes one will stand out as the popular choice. He’s not the only one who can end this, but his position could end it fastest and firmest.

Here is to holding out faith the VP will go back to shaping drug policy rather than reacting to it. If not, maybe he can just go to China.