Joe Biden said Saturday he still opposes legalizing marijuana on the federal level, telling attendees at a town hall in Las Vegas that he wants to see more study on whether it is a “gateway drug.”
The former vice president’s position puts him at odds with the other leading contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, with the rest of the field calling for the federal government to legalize marijuana – and several candidates criticizing Biden’s position on Sunday and Monday.
Polls have shown that marijuana legalization is broadly popular with Democratic primary voters and the general electorate, and Biden’s rivals, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have discussed the issue as a matter of racial justice.
Biden, who has long opposed marijuana legalization, was asked Saturday if his position had changed.
“But let me tell you the truth of the matter is, there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” he said. “It’s a debate, and I want a lot more – before I legalize it nationally – I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it.”
“It’s not irrational to do more scientific investigations to determine – which we have not done significantly enough – whether or not there are any things that relate to whether it’s a gateway drug or not. I don’t know enough to know whether it is,” he added.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website on marijuana and public health appears to back up Biden’s position. It says: “The majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances. More research is needed to understand if marijuana is a ‘gateway drug’ – a drug that is thought to lead to the use of more dangerous drugs (such as cocaine or heroin).”
Biden is still proposing major changes from existing federal laws and regulations. He has said he wants to decriminalize possession of marijuana and expunge the records of anyone who has served jail time for its use. He has said he would leave the legality of recreational use up to the states to decide.
Biden has also called for reclassifying marijuana from the list of Schedule I drugs, which the federal government considers to have no currently accepted medical use, to Schedule II, which would make it easier for scientists to research its impact.
Biden added on Saturday that he was “not prepared to push for the legalization. Medical marijuana yes – but the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in fact is one that I need more data to make that judgment.”
“But no one should go to jail for it, period,” he said.
His Democratic rivals have implicitly criticized Biden’s position on Twitter.
Highlighting polling trends on the issue, Sanders tweeted Sunday that the United States “must legalize marijuana now—and expunge all past marijuana convictions as a matter of racial and economic justice.”
“Let’s be clear: marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and should be legalized,” California Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted Monday.
Biden’s position also drew a rebuke from Democrats and activists who have pushed for the federal legalization of marijuana. Businessman Andrew Yang told CNN’s Erin Burnett on “Erin Burnett OutFront” Monday night that “most Americans agree that we should legalize marijuana, and that’s where I am,” he said. “I believe that Joe actually will end up evolving on this issue over time if he sees the same evidence I that have.”
Yang added, “Marijuana is not something that we just have out there completely free and easy. But it should be legal so that we can regulate it properly, make it safer and more standard for Americans, and also have some of the tax revenues that can help us counteract any of the negative effects.”
“Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized,” tweeted New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “These are matters of public health.”
Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer tweeted that Biden should “get with the program.”
“Not only do we have legislation that would solve the issue of research, the American people overwhelmingly support legalizing cannabis—period,” he said on Twitter. “The war on drugs has ruined countless lives. It’s past time we end this senseless prohibition.”
Eliza Orlins, a New York City public defender, tweeted that Biden “must know marijuana prohibition has disproportionately impacted low-income communities & communities of color, fueling mass criminalization, & a crisis of over-incarceration. Perpetuating unsubstantiated theories like this hurts people.”
CNN’s Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.