The debate over the legalization of marijuana came up in one of the buzziest moments in Wednesday’s Washington Post-MSNBC Democratic presidential debate when Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) chided former vice president Joe Biden for his recent comments on it.

What happened

While responding to another question, Booker “wanted to return to” the topic of black voters and the need for Democratic candidates to refrain from taking the party’s most faithful demographic group for granted and to speak directly to the topics that matter to black voters most.

“Issues do matter,” Booker said while discussing the concerns of black voters. “I have a lot of respect for the vice president — he swore me into my office, he’s a hero. This week, I hear him literally say that I don’t think we should legalize marijuana — I thought you might have been high when you said it.”

The audience responded with groans, laughter and applause.

“Let me tell you … marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people,” Booker continued. “The war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.”

He added: “Let me just say this: With more African Americans under criminal supervision in America than all the slaves since 1850, do not roll up into communities and not talk directly to issues that are going to relate to the liberation of children, because there are people in Congress right now that admit to smoking marijuana, while … our kids are in jail right now for those drug crimes.”

Biden responded by attempting to clarify his stance on marijuana laws.

“I think we should decriminalize marijuana, period,” he said. “And I think everyone — anyone who has a record — should be let out of jail, their records expunged, be completely zeroed out.

“But I do think it makes sense, based on data, that we should study what the long-term effects are for the use of marijuana,” Biden added. “That’s all it is.”

The backstory

During a Nevada town hall last weekend, Biden said he still opposes legalizing marijuana federally because of his persisting concerns about it being a “gateway drug.”

“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.”

The Post’s Teo Armus reported that there’s a mixed record when it comes to the research on the risks of marijuana.

Last week, for example, the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana pointed to the results of a study in JAMA Psychiatry showing that states that have legalized the recreational use of cannabis saw a half-percentage-point increase in rates of problematic use of the drug.
Recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states plus the District, while just four states prohibit its use in all forms.

While the majority — two-thirds — of Americans say marijuana should be legal, according to new data from the Pew Research Center, Biden, 77, is not an outlier among his generation. Only about a third (35 percent) of the members of the Silent Generation — what may be one of the lowest percentages of support — back marijuana legalization, according to Pew.

Booker’s comment appeared to be a thinly veiled jab at Biden’s past support for policies that disproportionately sent black and Latino Americans to prison — something Booker has attacked Biden on in past debates.

I previously reported in the Fix:

In 1988, then a senator from Delaware, Biden co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. That measure created new mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, and included a much-criticized sentencing rule that effectively treated possession of crack cocaine much more harshly than the possession of powder cocaine. Though the substances are nearly chemically identical, crack cocaine was more likely to be used by lower-income people, including blacks and Latinos, while powdered cocaine was more popular with people who were affluent.

Since before Biden entered the race, there has been pressure on him to back away from his past “tough on crime” policies that critics say helped lead to high incarceration rates that lawmakers on both sides of the aisles are now trying to reverse.

Even before officially declaring his candidacy, Biden began apologizing for his role in getting these policies passed — including writing the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

This past January, Biden acknowledged the mistake of passing such harsh legislation while speaking at a breakfast commemorating the birthday of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

“It was a big mistake when it was made. We thought, we were told by the experts, that crack — you never go back; it was somehow fundamentally different. It’s not different,” he said. “But it’s trapped an entire generation.” He “may not have always gotten things right,” he told the crowd.

Biden has since released criminal justice proposals to address high incarceration rates of people of color and has advocated for loosening the laws that some credit with increasing incarceration rates.

In July, he released a plan that he believes could decrease incarceration rates while fixing “the racial, gender, and income-based disparities in the system.” The proposal would decriminalize marijuana and expunge past convictions for possession.