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Biden’s blunt opposition to marijuana legalization

As his own party moves ahead on the issue, the president remains opposed to legalization.

President Joe Biden speaks in the Treaty Room in the White House on April 14, 2021.
Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

This month, something unusual happened: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took a stand against President Joe Biden.

The New York Democrat, typically a strong Biden ally, has transformed into one of the Senate’s biggest advocates for marijuana legalization, which Biden continues to oppose. But Schumer said he’ll move forward with his legalization bill anyway.

“I want to make my arguments to him, as many other advocates will,” Schumer said. “But at some point we’re going to move forward, period.”

Schumer is likely worried, at least in part, about a primary challenge from the left in the future — something Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has openly discussed.

But there’s a bigger issue here for Biden. Increasingly, the president is out of step with not just his party but the country and perhaps even most Republicans on marijuana legalization.

Marijuana legalization is extremely popular. Gallup and the Pew Research Center, two of the country’s leading polling organizations, have consistently found at least two-thirds of Americans back legalization.

Support is so high that, at this point, a majority of Republicans — who are generally more skeptical of drug policy reforms — may support it. Pew found 55 percent of Republicans back legalization. Gallup found a slim majority of Republicans supported it in 2017, 2018, and 2019. That reversed in 2020, but the difference between support and opposition among Republicans was still within the sampling margin of error. And, at any rate, a solid minority of 48 percent were behind it.

Support among Democrats, meanwhile, is in the high 70s and 80s across polls.

Maybe Biden doesn’t entirely trust the polls — after 2016 and 2020, many of us don’t. But there’s real-world evidence legalization is very popular, too.

For one, 17 states have now legalized marijuana, most recently New Mexico. Among the 15 states where marijuana legalization has been put in front of voters since 2012 (when Colorado and Washington state first legalized), it’s won in 13.

Even more impressive is marijuana’s recent record in Republican states. Since 2012, marijuana legalization has come up for a vote in four states that former President Donald Trump won by double digits in 2020. It’s won in three of those states (Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota), and lost in one (North Dakota). Weed is 3-1 in deep-red states.

So what could explain Biden’s opposition? Based on his public remarks, he seems genuinely conservative on the issue — arguing only for decriminalization (in which the threat of jail or prison time is removed for possession, but sales remain illegal), and calling for “more scientific investigations” into the issue, particularly whether pot is a “gateway drug.”

Biden, after all, not just supported but spearheaded many of the country’s current drug war policies. During the 1980s and ’90s, he backed and helped write bill after bill that toughened federal criminal penalties against all sorts of drugs. Biden has since admitted to going too far in at least some respects, but this is where he built his early political career.

Of course, the failure of these policies to stop major drug problems — the country is currently mired in its deadliest drug overdose crisis ever in the opioid epidemic — and these policies’ punitive nature are reasons the public has shifted toward backing marijuana legalization. And the real-life evidence of legalization suggests it works fine, even leading governors in legalization states to regularly flip to supporting it.

But Biden is not convinced, even as his party moves ahead without him. With a veto pen in hand, it could make the president the biggest barrier to legalization.