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Advocates for marijuana legalization are expressing disappointment and frustration with the Biden administration’s response to Sha’Carri Richardson’s disqualification from the Tokyo Olympic Games, which they say highlights the White House’s refusal to move forward on cannabis policy.
Richardson, a top U.S. track and field star, will not be competing in the Olympics later this summer after testing positive for marijuana, which is a banned substance according to both U.S. and international anti-doping agencies. The suspension for a drug that in no way improved her competitive ability was acknowledged as disappointing by President Biden, but he did not take as strong a stance as marijuana advocates and Richardson supporters had been hoping for.
“The rules are the rules, and everybody knows what the rules were going in. Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue, but the rules are the rules,” Biden said Saturday, adding that he was “really proud of the way she responded.”
Yahoo News spoke this week with a number of marijuana advocacy groups, many of which met earlier this year with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to discuss reform options. Their frustration with the White House stems both from its response to Richardson’s disqualification and from the general lack of movement forward on marijuana policy.
Before Richardson's suspension, the White House last discussed the topic at length back in April, when press secretary Jen Psaki held back from any firm commitment that Biden would legalize marijuana if a bill to that effect appeared able to pass in Congress.
“He wants to decriminalize, but, again, he’ll look at the research of the positive and negative impacts,” Psaki said.
She reiterated Biden’s position that the drug should be decriminalized and reclassified and that prior criminal records of offenses involving marijuana should be expunged. In response, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) called Biden’s strategy “impractical at best and disingenuous at worst,” in part because the group argues that it would do little to harmonize state and federal marijuana laws.
Activists said they understood that marijuana could not have been a top priority for Biden, who came into office amid the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, they said they wished the White House had tried to do more to push legalization forward.
“What happened to Sha’Carri Richardson is terrible, but it really just underscores a much larger issue that’s been in existence long before. And it’s one we’ve been sounding the alarm on, but the Biden administration has not been listening,” said Amber Littlejohn, executive director for the Minority Cannabis Business Association.
“It is absolutely tragic that a talented athlete will not be allowed to compete in the Olympics. But we currently have people who are sitting in jail and federal prison due to first-time cannabis offenses, and we have people who have been deported or are under threat of being deported due to minor cannabis possession charges.
“While we appreciate anything that sparks the discussion, the Biden administration has a very long way to go to get in line with the will of the American people.”
Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, agreed.
“I certainly understand President Biden took office with some major challenges on his desk, and it would not have been reasonable to expect him to address cannabis reform as the first thing, but as we get deeper into his tenure, it is starting to get frustrating that we’re not seeing any movement,” he said.
In March, The Daily Beast reported that the White House had punished dozens of young staffers for marijuana use. Jason Ortiz, director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said those actions set a tone for the rest of his presidency so far.
“Joe Biden made it clear that they were not going to hire or allow folks who failed a cannabis test to work at the White House,” Ortiz said. “That was very clear at the beginning of his term, and sent a signal to the rest of the federal government that we are not going to progress our cannabis policies.”
During his decades in the Senate, Biden was known as a proponent of the war on drugs and stiff penalties for offenders. In November 2019, he said more study was needed to see if marijuana was a “gateway” drug, while his top opponents in the Democratic presidential primaries were calling for full legalization. In subsequent interviews and events, Biden attempted to walk back the comments.
Justin Strekal, policy director of NORML, said that pushing legalization would be in line with Biden’s stance on racial justice.
“While President Biden has issued an Executive Order to advance racial equity through every aspect of government, this administration continues to turn a blind eye to the criminalization of marijuana, which is the most commonly used justification for law enforcement to stop American citizens. As the data clearly shows, this tool of oppression is most often wielded against young men of color,” Strekal said, citing an ACLU report.
Morgan Fox of the National Cannabis Industry Association noted that “the actions and statements of the administration have been a little disappointing, seeming to view this issue as a low priority and one which they are willing to chalk up to institutional inertia.”
The Biden administration has also been criticized for its 2022 budget proposal, which would block the District of Columbia from opening dispensaries and taxing weed, even though it is now legal there. D.C.'s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said she was having difficulty reconciling the administration’s support for D.C. statehood with the proposal.
The Richardson suspension has already sparked some change. On Wednesday, the Nevada Athletic Commission said it would no longer ban athletes for the use or possession of cannabis.
That same morning, Psaki told CNN “maybe we should take another look” at the rules but added, “We certainly have to respect the role of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the U.S. Olympic Committee in the decisions they make.” Advocates acknowledged that Biden could not unilaterally change international marijuana testing policies, but said his support could go a long way toward persuading anti-doping agencies that there was no need to test for the drug.
“It doesn’t seem like a very heavy lift politically to say, ‘The rules are the rules, and we can’t change the punishment, but we should change that rule in the future.’ But he won’t even say that, and that’s frustrating,” Schweich said.
“Even if it could not directly alter U.S. and Olympic cannabis testing and punishment policies,” Fox added, “it would have been a strong symbolic move for the administration to fully stand behind Richardson and call for change. But the response was fairly lackluster, especially when combined with the president’s tepid position and lack of action on broader cannabis issues that affect our entire nation.”
“If Joe Biden is signaling he wants to keep things harsh, the Olympic Committee is going to say, ‘Well, the U.S. supports these kinds of penalties, so why would we change them?’” Ortiz said. “He had the opportunity to say, ‘We’re beginning the process of ending the war on cannabis users,’ and he didn’t.
“He still has that opportunity,” added Ortiz. “He could come to her defense and say these policies are outdated and have nothing to do with her ability to run the 100-meter dash, and we shouldn’t penalize folks for using medicine that is otherwise unrelated to the situation at hand. It’s not a performance-enhancing drug in any way that is normally defined.”
The drug is legal for recreational use in 18 states plus the District of Columbia, and legal for medical use in a number of other states. However, it remains illegal under federal law.
Supporters point to states like Washington and Colorado, where recreational marijuana has been legal for nearly a decade, as well as the racial gap in enforcement of the current laws.
Some advocates for marijuana legalization also expressed disappointment with Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris opposed the legalization of marijuana at the time she was California attorney general, when a proposition for legalization was on the ballot in her state. She changed her tune, though, after being elected to the Senate, where she became the leading sponsor of the MORE Act, a marijuana reform bill that passed the House in December. In March, Bloomberg reported that a Harris aide had told the agency that the vice president’s position is now the same as Biden’s.
Many of the activists interviewed praised the work of Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., as well as numerous lawmakers in the House. When asked what the Biden administration could do without approval of Congress, some activists suggested changes could be made to federal contracts that require drug testing.
They also said the White House could reinstitute the Cole Memo, a 2013 Justice Department recommendation not to pursue federal prosecution of marijuana crimes in states where it is legalized. The memo was rescinded by the Trump administration in 2018.
But with both the White House and Congress looking increasingly unlikely ever to make legalization a priority, Schweich said he wasn’t optimistic about any real movement at the federal level soon.
“While I’d love to see President Biden adopt a better position on this issue and express his support, and take the actions he could take without needing to pass a bill,” he said, “I’m very cautious about telling people we’re going to see federal reform this year or next year.”
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