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Biden’s opposition to marijuana legalization is at odds with most Americans’ views

A majority of Americans, especially Democrats, support legalization. Biden doesn’t.

Former Vice President Joe Biden at a Democratic presidential debate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden at a Democratic presidential debate.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, still opposes federal marijuana legalization — putting him at odds not just with the majority of Democrats but also Americans overall.

In debates, in his criminal justice reform plan, and in his “Plan for Black America,” Biden has said he supports the federal decriminalization of marijuana, which would maintain fines but do away with prison or jail time for possession. But he remains opposed to full legalization, which would remove all penalties and, typically, allow sales for recreational purposes.

The position is more reform-friendly than that of President Donald Trump, who opposes both legalization and decriminalization. But it’s still out-of-step with the views of US voters, especially Democrats.

Based on surveys by Gallup and the Pew Research Center, roughly two-thirds of US adults support marijuana legalization. Support for legalization has increased steadily over the years, up from about 12 percent when Gallup first started polling on the question in 1969.

A chart showing increasing support for marijuana legalization steadily increasing since 1969. Gallup

When US adults are asked about their support for marijuana legalization in greater detail, only 8 percent say it shouldn’t be legal at all, according to Pew; 59 percent say it should be legal for medical and recreational use, while 32 percent say it should be legal for medical use only.

Democrats are even more in favor of legalization, with average support of 78 percent across four generations, according to Gallup and Pew’s surveys, though a majority of Republicans also support it. Based on Pew’s findings, every generation of Democrats surveyed support marijuana legalization.

In other words, Biden is out of step not just with other Democrats, but also a majority of Democrats in his own generation.

The Biden campaign did not respond on the record to Vox’s request for comment.

Supporters of legalization argue it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, outweigh any potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that may come with legalization.

Opponents, however, claim legalization will enable a huge marijuana industry that would market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on some of the heaviest consumers of their products. This could result in more people using pot, even if it leads to negative health consequences.

Throughout the primary campaign, other Democratic candidates took far more aggressive positions on marijuana reform. Before he joined the presidential race, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) released a marijuana legalization plan, which would not only legalize marijuana at the federal level but also encourage states to legalize it. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) released a detailed plan to legalize and regulate marijuana — at 4:20 pm, because humor is alive and well.

In fact, Biden was alone among the top-polling Democratic campaigns in his opposition to federal marijuana legalization. Biden’s position led to a particularly colorful exchange at the Democratic debate in November — at which Booker, commenting on Biden saying he opposes federal legalization, remarked, “I thought you might’ve been high when you said it.”

But despite the support for legalization among Democrats and Americans overall, the issue, apparently, wasn’t a major priority for Democratic voters during the primary. Biden still walked away with the most delegates to became the presumptive nominee.

With a coronavirus pandemic and recession still underway, perhaps Biden is hoping the same will hold up in the general election too.