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Drug Reform in a Biden Administration?

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

In August, the DNC Convention depicted Joe Biden as “Uncle Joe,” an empathetic figure who faced adversity, experienced personal tragedy and is generally kind of a goofball, an elderly gentleman telling rambling stories about how movie popcorn tasted better in the 1950s. In late September—in another moment of empathy—the only part of the presidential debate that received positive press coverage came when the former Vice President defended his son and said, “My son, like a lot of people at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaking it. He’s fixed it. He’s working on it. And I’m proud of him; I’m proud of my son.” Jonathan Reiss, writing for Rolling Stone, was one among many in the press who thought this moment might potentially signal a sea change for drug policy:

“Having the son of the president represent the recovery community is a new paradigm. This wouldn’t be the president’s distant kin quietly slipping into a million-dollar rehab for 28 days. This would be the president’s son acknowledging that he is in recovery, that he has smoked crack and come out the other end of that indelibly narrow glass tunnel. Merely acknowledging the problem is profoundly meaningful — the first of the twelve steps.

“Addiction is a realm where reform often comes from those who have been through it. If Hunter continues to wear the label of ‘addict’ without shame, lending his experience and the experience of others in recovery to pertinent policy discussions, this could be a ray of optimism during bleak times for those in recovery. Especially now, when so many people are confronting one of the bleakest times in modern history.”

Reiss thinks Biden “will take care of your family” like his own. But Biden has always been lenient with his children, while failing to extend this same courtesy to others.

We only have to look at his record. In 1988, when Hunter Biden “was cited for possession of a controlled substance” in Stone Harbor, NJ, “there was a pre-trial intervention, and the record was expunged.” Hunter stated in a New Yorker profile last year that this citation coincided with his first use of crack cocaine, suggesting which substance he may have had on him at the time. That same year Joe Biden helped shepherd the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 through the Senate–an extension and enlargement of the crack-inspired Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986–which strengthened penalties for drug offenses and created the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which centralized drug coordination among agencies. Three years later, in 1991, Biden gave a tough-on-crime speech on the floor of the Senate, stating, “If you have a piece of crack cocaine no bigger than this quarter that I am holding in my hand…we passed a law through the leadership of Senator Thurmond and myself and others – we passed a law that said you go to jail for five years. You get no probation. You get nothing other than five years in jail. A judge doesn’t have a choice.”

No criminal charges I guess are fine for the Bidens, but not for everyone else.

When his daughter Ashley was arrested for marijuana possession in 1999 as a student at Tulane University, Biden’s attitude remained unchanged. This personal experience did not cause him to reconsider that maybe, like Ashley, other people’s children should have their charges dropped too. In fact, on marijuana, Biden continues to be an outlier. In 2010, he told ABC News, “I still believe it’s a gateway drug. I’ve spent a lot of my life as chairman of the Judiciary Committee dealing with this. I think it would be a mistake to legalize” it. During the 2020 election cycle, Biden ran as the only Democrat not to support marijuana legalization. Even the Biden-Sanders joint task force failed to budge his team on that issue, a position with overwhelming support, 80 percent among Democrats and two-thirds of all Americans.

Biden’s past record can tell us something about what to expect from a future Biden administration. Previously, he has supported invasive surveillance, state monitoring programs, and increased funding for law enforcement. During the Reagan administration, one of his pet projects included creating a “drug Czar,” believing that drug control efforts needed to be centralized through a single office. In 1989, Biden criticized George H. W. Bush’s drug war proposals because they inadequately funded law enforcement: “Quite frankly, the president’s plan is not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand,” Biden said, adding, “The president said he wants to wage a war on drugs. But if that’s true, what we need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam; not another limited war fought on the cheap and destined for stalemate and human tragedy.” In the 1990s, Biden backed a mandatory vaccine for school-aged children, equipped with a (theoretical) blocking agent to prevent them from experiencing the pleasurable effects of drugs. In the 2008 primary, his position sounded a lot like Donald Trump, stirring up fears of “illegal immigrants,” and how they were bringing drugs over the border.

Looking at the central planks of the Biden 2020 campaign, in areas like criminal justice reform and the opioid crisis, many of the same tendencies still apply.

  1. Expand the effectiveness of monitoring programs designed to prevent inappropriate overprescribing of opioids

  2. Direct the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to step up its efforts to identify suspicious shipments and protect communities.”

  3. Make effective prevention, treatment, and recovery services available to all, including through a $125 billion federal investment.

  4. End all incarceration for drug use alone and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment.

  5. Increase cooperation among global law enforcement agencies.

  6. Stem the flow of illicit drugs, like fentanyl and heroin, into the United States – especially from China and Mexico.

  7. Ensure regular updating of the Centers for Disease the Control and Prevention (CDC) prescriber guideline based on the best available evidence.

  8. Hold accountable Big Pharma companies, executives, and others responsible for their role in triggering the opioid crisis

Again, in 2020—more monitoring, surveillance, punishment, and funding for law enforcement. We need not go through every single one of these, but a couple will do. “Hold accountable pharmaceutical companies, executives, and others responsible for their role in triggering the opioid crisis.” No one thinks Joe Biden, the “Senator from MBNA,” is going to pursue a corporate crime-fighting agenda.

What about making “effective prevention, treatment, and recovery services available to all, including through a $125 billion investment?” If you look at the language, “available to all” does not mean available to all. The $125 billion is a one-time investment; the funding is mostly allocated to states, directed to academic institutions, used to build new facilities, or for things like helping first responders stockpile Naloxone. “Stem the flow of illicit drugs, like fentanyl and heroin, into the United States—especially from China and Mexico.” This is the greatest hits of old-timey racial appeals from America’s past drug wars, spreading longstanding fears of the crafty, sneaky Chinese and the criminal, alien immigrant. Other sections include expanding the reach of the DEA, increasing the level of state prescription monitoring programs—presumably using the power of the federal government to bully doctors and dictate milligram level for patients. I doubt there is a huge groundswell for more policing in the doctor’s office.

Biden’s plan for forced drug treatment sounds a lot like his past plan for mandatory boot camp. Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cops, and Columbia University neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart have roundly criticized Biden’s plan for compulsory treatment.

If Biden wanted to take some concrete steps toward reducing stigma or addressing substance use disorder, there are things he could do. Most of it involves repealing legislation he introduced and passed as a Senator. Politico wrote an excellent piece last year about how harm reduction advocates could not implement measures to deal with the opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania, stemming from crack-era statutes Biden crafted decades ago:

“In Philadelphia, where Penn is located and Biden’s presidential campaign is headquartered, activists and public health workers actually laid the groundwork for what would be the nation’s first overdose prevention site. But earlier this year, federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania filed suit against Safehouse, the nonprofit organization formed to run the location, preemptively acting to prevent the overdose prevention site from opening. To block it, the law they cited was an old provision of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, known as the ‘crack-house statute,’ which Biden co-sponsored.”

Will Joe Biden reverse those policies? Probably not. But it is unlikely people are voting for Biden because they expect to see major reforms in drug policy. The main way to head off Biden’s worst tendencies would be for Democrats to make a clean sweep of the House and Senate. While that is no guarantee against Biden’s recalcitrant attitude toward drugs, it makes it more likely he will have to move closer to the party’s position, which is much more receptive to change and reform.

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