Staff Columnist

Biden on drugs

Iowans hoping for progress on drug policy will have to demand it from the new administration

Joe Biden on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
Joe Biden on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

There is a new drug warrior in the White House, more cunning than the last.

For the drug reform community, President Joe Biden’s inauguration this week was met with by both relief and anxiety. While Biden and new Vice President Kamala Harris have destructive records on drug enforcement, they have shown some willingness to change with the times.

Presidents, in essence, are cops, tasked by the Constitution to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” As a senator for 36 years, Biden was an architect of the modern drug war. He championed tough-on-crime legislation that is blamed for needlessly locking up many thousands of people, especially Black men, a few of whom recently were granted clemency by Donald Trump.

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The new president has said Americans should not be incarcerated solely for drug crimes, but he favors mandatory treatment programs that carry their own public health and civil rights pitfalls.

“Many of the same constructs that led to mass criminalization and incarceration are behind involuntary and coercive treatment like drug courts, including racism, stigmatization, ableism, and profit over people,” Maritza Perez of the Drug Policy Alliance said in a news release.

Biden has never fully disavowed his role in building and perpetuating the incarceration state, and at times has defended it. What he does as president will depend on pressure from the public.

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A narrowly divided Congress is unlikely to pass major drug reform legislation, but there is plenty of room for progress if the executive branch is willing.

A key point for Iowans is whether the Biden administration will ease restrictions on marijuana. Our state’s medical cannabidiol program is in violation of federal law, and state officials are seeking assurance from federal overseers that our illegal activity will not attract federal intervention.

For starters, Biden could restore the “Cole memorandum,” an Obama-era document rescinded by the Trump administration that vowed the federal government would not take enforcement action against states that legalized marijuana as long as states meet certain conditions.

The Biden administration also might have the authority to act unilaterally to reschedule marijuana, removing it from the federal government’s list of most restricted substances. Biden’s campaign materials said he favors Schedule II over the current Schedule I, which still is too restrictive but vastly better than the status quo, allowing for more research and medical applications.

Besides marijuana, harm reductionists hope Biden will take action to address opioid overdoses and related issues. The COVID-19 pandemic has restricted access to safer injection services and drug treatment programs.

Biden could direct his Justice Department to halt federal lawsuits against safe consumption sites. He could direct his Drug Enforcement Administration to indefinitely extend temporary changes making opioid treatment more accessible. He could direct his Food and Drug Administration to make naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, available over the counter.

These things are possible, but only if we demand them.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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