Joe Biden, Pot President?

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On Labor Day in 2022, John Fetterman found himself in a room in Pittsburgh with President Biden.

Fetterman, a Democrat who was then the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and in the middle of his successful run for the U.S. Senate, had a simple message he wanted to share: Go big on legal weed.

And how did the president respond? “He was just, like, ‘Yeah, absolutely,’” Fetterman told me yesterday.

The Justice Department on Tuesday said it had recommended that federal restrictions on marijuana become a whole lot chiller. And while it is not clear that lobbying from Democrats like Fetterman has played any role, the move was the latest step by the Biden administration to liberalize the nation’s cannabis policy — something his allies believe comes with an obvious political upside when more than two-thirds of Americans support legalization of the drug.

“High reward, zero risk,” said the perpetually sweatshirted Fetterman, joking that he advises Biden only on matters of fashion and weed policy.

Biden, a suit-wearing president who is more statesman than stoner, has become something of the pot president. It could elevate his standing specifically with young voters, who support rescheduling, or reclassifying, marijuana as a less serious drug, as well as with supporters of changes to criminal justice laws.

One of the president’s allies just wishes he would talk about it more.

“He has pardoned people, he initiated this rescheduling, but he has not embraced it. It’s not too late,” said Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, the 75-year-old Democrat who has been pushing for looser cannabis policy for half a century. “The public needs to know that this is the single most significant step that has been taken by the federal government in the more-than-50-year-old war on drugs.”

For much of his career, Biden pushed for tough-on-crime policies. And as a presidential candidate in 2019, he got made fun of by Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, for saying he opposed federally legalizing marijuana — although he also said during that campaign that no one should be in jail for smoking it.

As president, Biden has sought to make good on that promise, pardoning thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession under federal law. In directing his cabinet to review marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug, he opened the door to a major federal change that would subject the drug to fewer restrictions on production and research — and make it easier for people who use it or build businesses around it to access lifelines like public housing, banking and tax breaks.

Biden promoted those actions at events including his State of the Union address in March, though when the White House held a round table on cannabis reform about a week later, it was hosted by Vice President Kamala Harris, not Biden himself. He has been quiet about the rescheduling of marijuana this week. When asked about it, his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said she did not want to get ahead of the complex process underway at the Justice Department.

Blumenauer warns that Biden is leaving a political opportunity on the table. Fetterman helped his party keep its hold on the Senate with a campaign that pushed for legalizing marijuana.

“In terms of energizing young people, in terms of being on the side of reform, being on the right side of history, I think this is something that Joe Biden and his administration should embrace,” Blumenauer said. “This is not low-hanging fruit. This is picking the fruit up off the ground.”

It is not clear, however, that marijuana policy is as important an issue to younger voters as issues like abortion rights or the economy.

In some ways, Biden has handled the issue of marijuana similarly to how he handled another progressive priority: student loans. Progressives spent months urging him to cancel $50,000 in student debt for those who had it in one fell swoop. His administration proceeded more cautiously, carefully reviewing its legal options before rolling out a more moderate approach.

The administration’s move comes as 38 states and the nation’s capital have already legalized marijuana for medical reasons. Twenty-four states and Washington, D.C., have legalized it for recreational use.

And, perhaps for that reason, some Republicans sought to minimize the impact of Biden’s action on policy as well as on the political landscape.

“It’s an election year. A lot was said in 2020, but not much has been done,” said Representative Dave Joyce of Ohio, a Republican and a former prosecutor who has worked with Blumenauer on cannabis reform. Biden’s move won’t prompt immediate change, he said.

Gov. Chris Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, said marijuana policy was essentially a nonpartisan issue. He has come to the conclusion that legalization is inevitable in New Hampshire, so he is open to it as long as it is carefully regulated.

“I don’t think politically it’s some great win,” Sununu said. “I think people understand it’s a gateway drug.”

The lack of fiery Republican attacks on Biden for his marijuana policy, however, seems to say something about how deeply marijuana has shifted in the American political psyche.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Fetterman said, before referring to a name given to those who are still deeply opposed to the drug. “The reefer madness caucus is probably smaller than the ‘I like to shoot my dog’ caucus.”

My colleague Reid Epstein recently went looking for every living Republican who ever ran against Biden during his decades representing Delaware in the Senate. One was a little harder to find than the others. I asked him to tell us more.

To hear Christine O’Donnell tell it, first they stole her election, and then they stole her political identity.

Last week, I went in search of O’Donnell, forever infamous for her “I’m not a witch” declaration in 2010, to speak with her about her experience as the last Republican to run against Joe Biden for the Senate, in 2008. She had not given an interview in eight years.

O’Donnell was one of the first Republicans to adopt the sort of novice political populism that Trump would use to ride to the White House. She went on to claim in a 2011 book that her 29-percentage-point loss to Biden was marred by voter fraud. There is no evidence for this.

These days, she believes — wrongly — that Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election. I asked her if her campaigns for office simply came too soon, before voters were ready to get behind somebody who questioned the infrastructure of American democracy.

“Humility wants me to answer that, like, ‘Oh, no,’” O’Donnell replied. “But by me taking the hit, it opened up the political process for other people.”

After Trump went to the White House, O’Donnell moved to Florida and enrolled at the Ave Maria School of Law in Naples. She has been living a largely anonymous existence. Yet her past has never been too far away.

“I put on the television during a study break, and I heard someone on CNN who said, ‘You know who we have to blame for Donald Trump? Christine O’Donnell.’ I was, like, ‘Turn off the TV.’”

Reid J. Epstein



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