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Smokin' Joe

Biden’s Marijuana Move Is Good for American Democracy

Protecting democracy isn’t just about holding elections. It means making the government responsive to the American people’s wishes.

Biden at a White House event
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Biden at a White House event on April 27

President Joe Biden ran for president on the premise that he would protect the nation’s democracy from existential threats. This week, his administration took a major step to do just that—by moving to downgrade marijuana’s classification on the federal list of controlled substances and lift significant legal restrictions on its use and possession.

The Drug Enforcement Administration’s planned rule change, as reported by the AP, would reclassify pot from Schedule I, alongside heroin and LSD, to Schedule III, which includes more benign drugs like codeine and testosterone. An exact timeline on when the change would take effect is not clear, since it still requires the approval of Attorney General Merrick Garland and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, and rule changes must go through a lengthy notice and comment period.

It is also important to note what the Biden administration’s move will not do. First and foremost, it would not fully decriminalize the drug at the federal level. Only Congress has the power to rewrite the laws that specifically make its possession and distribution a criminal offense. Nor does it affect state licensing regimes that determine who can and can’t lawfully sell it in the states, or the state-level laws that still criminalize it.

But this will be welcome news for the nation’s marijuana industry, which has operated in a gray area of legality for the past decade. Reclassification could open the door for researchers to conduct clinical studies on marijuana’s effects that were previously barred. It may also allow dispensaries and other marijuana-related businesses to obtain tax breaks, conduct business with major banks, and, unless otherwise prohibited by state law, advertise their products.

Beyond the practical effects, there is also an important civic one. There are few issues in American politics with such broad public support where the nation’s elected leaders nonetheless refused to do anything about it. While some may deride reclassification as an election-year gambit, that would be a good thing. Protecting democracy isn’t just about holding elections; it means making the government responsive to the American people’s wishes.

There is no real dispute on where the people stand on marijuana. Last fall, a Gallup survey found that roughly 70 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana. That represents a nearly 20 percent leap just within the past decade. The polling organization has found that about 17 percent of Americans regularly use it, while about half of all Americans say they’ve tried it at least once. It’s unclear how many of those respondents followed former President Bill Clinton’s lead and didn’t inhale.

The most striking thing about the Gallup survey may be its demographic findings. Unsurprisingly, marijuana legalization enjoys relatively more support among younger and more liberal Americans, with 87 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of 18-to-34 year olds favoring it. But it has also made considerable inroads among more conservative sections of American society: 55 percent of Republicans favor legalization, as do 64 percent of people older than 55 years of age.

Those numbers may even be underestimates. While Gallup did not distinguish between medical and recreational use in its survey, a March 2024 Pew Research Center survey looked at the difference. With that question in the mix, a whopping 88 percent of respondents said that it should be legalized at least for medical use. Only roughly one-third of Americans polled said that legalizing marijuana for recreational use would make communities less safe or increase the use of more dangerous drugs.

Marijuana legalization does not hold the title for greatest social shift in American life within the last generation. That title still goes to the reversal of public opinion on same-sex marriage. But the tidal shift on marijuana is impressive in its size and scope. Colorado became the first state to legalize it for recreational use in 2013. Earlier that year, the Obama administration had said it would not sue jurisdictions that sought to do so, opening the door to similar state-level initiatives.

Today, 24 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and a further 13 states allow possession and distribution for medical use as well. Only six states have declined to legalize it in some form. Two of them, Idaho and Nebraska, may hold ballot initiatives on the matter in November. Florida is also considering a recreational marijuana initiative, while South Dakota will try to do it again after the state Supreme Court struck down a successful 2020 amendment for violating single-subject rules.

All of this stands in sharp contrast with Congress and the White House, where movement toward legalization has been sluggish at best. Part of the problem is generational: Top federal lawmakers, as well as Biden himself, are much, much older than the nation they represent. For Biden, the shift is even more remarkable given his own senatorial career. While representing Delaware in the Senate, he championed some of the nation’s strictest anti-drug laws, reflecting the tough-on-crime zeitgeist of the 1980s and the 1990s as well as his own beliefs.

That stance softened in recent years but never completely changed. In 2022, Biden pardoned thousands of Americans who had been convicted of simple possession of marijuana. That move made it easier for the recipients to obtain jobs and housing, but it also did not free anyone from prison. The Justice Department said nobody was serving a prison sentence just for simple possession at the time. And while Biden then expressed support for rescheduling marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act, he has stopped short of supporting full legalization.

After this week’s announcement, Senate Democrats reintroduced legislation to do just that. But it faces a set of nearly insurmountable obstacles in Congress: The legislative branch is barely functional these days thanks to GOP infighting in the House, and even if it were functional, a large number of Republican lawmakers still oppose legalization in any form. If Biden wants to tell voters that American democracy is better off now than it was four years ago, carrying out their wishes on marijuana policy is a good way to do that.