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John Nichols: Biden should abandon caution and endorse legal marijuana

John Nichols: Biden should abandon caution and endorse legal marijuana

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Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at McGregor Industries in Dunmore, Pa., Thursday, July 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s platform is clear on the question of prohibition. “The war on drugs is a colossal failure,” the document says, declaring, “Marijuana should be legal and regulated like tobacco and alcohol.”

At a point when the Pew Research Center polling tells us that Americans back legalization by a 67-32 margin, taking a clear stand on this issue is smart policy and smart politics.

Unfortunately, the national Democratic Party is struggling to achieve the same level of clarity that the Wisconsin party has achieved.

When a commission that’s advising presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on criminal justice reform released its policy recommendations last week, legalization was off the agenda.

That was just one example of the caution that permeates the 110-page document submitted to the Democratic National Committee’s platform drafters by the six task forces that were set up in May by Biden and his chief rival for the party’s nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The task force recommendations on issues ranging from health care and the environment to immigration and economics tend toward compromise at a point when the former vice president should be presenting a dynamic vision of what comes next.

The agendas outlined by the commissions were far more progressive than those of President Trump and the Republicans. And there were a number of areas where the policies are more progressive than those adopted by Democrats in the past, leading Sanders to suggest that “the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country.” But as a Politico analysis pointed out, “The task force recommendations don’t include the kind of wide-scale systemic upheaval that won Sanders such a fervent following in his two presidential campaigns  —while provoking an outcry from moderate Democrats and Republicans alike.”

Biden’s representatives on the task forces moved a bit to the left, mirroring their candidate’s progression. But on issue after issue, they avoided the sort of big, bold structural change that Sanders and Warren championed in the primaries  —and that now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, mass unemployment and demands for racial justice, polling suggests voters recognize as necessary.

There’s the old talk of a “public option” to expand access to health care coverage. But no plan for the Medicare for All approach that is needed to create a single-payer system.

There’s some good language about eliminating power plant carbon pollution by 2035 and achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But there’s no comprehensive Green New Deal proposal to address the climate crisis while creating the jobs of the future.

There’s criticism of mass incarceration and a good proposal to restrict federal funding for states that maintain cash bail systems. Yet, even as demonstrations against police brutality have filled the streets of American cities, the criminal justice task force fails to eliminate the doctrine of qualified immunity, which Rep. Ayanna Pressley explained, “shields police from accountability, impedes true justice, and undermines the constitutional rights of every person in this country. It’s past time to end qualified immunity.”

While the commission’s report called for steps to limit the worst abuses, it failed to embrace the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — a measure that eliminates qualified immunity, which has passed the House — or Pressley’s Ending Qualified Immunity Act.

Color of Change senior director of criminal justice campaigns Scott Roberts told Politico that Biden “still seems to embrace kind of a law-and-order lite.” That was certainly the case when it came to upending marijuana laws.

The commission rejected legalization — the popular position backed by Sanders. Instead, it stuck to the more cautious approach that’s been maintained by Biden, a supporter of the drug war during his own Senate years, who has softened some but not all of his old positions. Instead of legalization, the commission proposed to “decriminalize marijuana use,” reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act, and leave it to the states to decide about legalization.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws concluded that the proposal “is out of step with public opinion (and) would do little to mitigate the failed policy of federal prohibition.” For instance, noted NORML executive director Erik Altieri, “Rescheduling of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act would continue to make the federal government the primary dictators of cannabis policy, and would do little if anything to address its criminal status under federal law.”

Why didn’t the commission simply endorse the Marijuana Justice Act, which has been introduced by New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker in the Senate and House Democrats Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna? Sanders supports the measure, as do two of Biden’s vice presidential prospects, Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris. The answer is that Biden has a long history of opposing legalization — going so far in his resistance to the idea that, last year, Rep.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suggested that the former vice president was employing “Reagan-era talking points.”

That’s not a good image for Biden, who needs to offer the electorate — especially young voters who have been less than enthusiastic about his candidacy — more than a cautious argument that he is better than Trump. To win the victory that’s needed in 2020, the Democratic ticket should mirror the more progressive vision that Wisconsin Democrats have already embraced.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. His new book is "The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party" (Verso).

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