Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said on Tuesday that criminal records for marijuana convictions represent a major systemic barrier to economic opportunity that’s had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
During a speech on racial equity and the economy, the former vice president said that “getting caught for smoking marijuana when you’re young surely shouldn’t deny you, the rest your life, being able to have a good paying job or a career or a loan or an ability to rent an apartment.”
“Right now, that criminal record is the weight that holds back too many people of color, and many whites as well,” he said, adding that the process of getting those records sealed or expunged can be “complicated and costly in the states where the records are kept.”
Biden, who continues to oppose legalizing cannabis, said that more states should “recognize the significant costs to their economy when people with certain non-violent criminal records can’t fully contribute to their full talents and capacity.” However, “even when the states want to give that person a second chance and seal or expunge a certain non-violent criminal record, the record keeping-systems are so outdated, they don’t know how to do it.”
To help resolve that, Biden said that if he’s elected, he would make it so states that are interested in implementing an automated expungement process could receive federal assistance.
“Under my plan, if a state decides it wants to implement an automated system for the sealing and expunging of certain nonviolent criminal records, if a state chooses to do that, the federal government will help put together the process and allow them the money to be able to know how to organize to do that.”
“That’s what racial equity in our economy looks like,” he said.
Missing from the speech, however, was an acknowledgement that during his time in the Senate, Biden helped craft some of the punitive anti-drug laws that sent people—particularly black and brown people—to prison and gave them a criminal record in the first place. And while the campaign likely wants to distance the candidate from those actions, President Trump’s reelection team has seized on it and attacked Biden as the “architect” of the war on drugs.
Of course, Biden has evolved on criminal justice and drug policy in the decades since, but he’s still disappointed cannabis reform advocates by maintaining an opposition to adult-use legalization—a policy change supported by a supermajority of Democrats.
Instead, he’s backed decriminalizing possession, modest federal rescheduling, medical cannabis legalization, expungements and letting states set their own marijuana policies.
The new racial equity plan Biden rolled out on Tuesday says he “will advance a pathway for redemption and re-entry—and make real the possibility of second chances for all Americans—by helping states modernize their criminal justice data infrastructure and adopt automated record sealing for selected categories of non-violent offenses, to modernize their criminal justice data infrastructure.”
“This data infrastructure will facilitate sealing of records in a manner that is precise, complete and efficient—so those records are not used to deny people jobs, housing, voting rights, school loans and other opportunities to rebuild their lives,” the plan states. “The grants Biden is proposing will support state efforts to research, plan for, and ultimately implement the criminal record data infrastructure improvements that will make automated record relief possible. Beyond that, the infrastructure improvements will yield a general improvement in the operation and efficiency of state records.”
Some held out hope that a criminal justice task force organized by Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) would have recommended that the former vice president adopt a pro-legalization position, but that did not materialize.
And what’s more, there’s new suspicion among advocates that delegates on the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee felt pressure from the Biden campaign to vote against an amendment that would have made legalization a 2020 party plank.
While that hasn’t been substantiated, the panel rejected the marijuana proposal in a 50-106 vote on Monday, with even longtime advocates like Congressional Cannabis Caucus cochair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) voting against it.