Marijuana is not a 'gateway drug.' If Joe Biden doesn't know that, he shouldn't be president.

To put it in terms the former vice president will understand, his ideas about pot are malarkey.
Image: Joe Biden runs on stage at a First in the West Event at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden runs on stage at a First in the West Event at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, 2019.Carlo Allegri / Reuters
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By Simon Moya-Smith

Presidential hopeful Joe Biden told a crowd of Las Vegas rallygoers Saturday that, if elected, he will not legalize marijuana because, he said, there’s not “enough evidence” as to “whether or not it is a gateway drug.”

There is plenty of evidence, folks, and it’s not. But Biden’s comments are also plenty of evidence that this man is out of step with the times, with Democratic voters and with the needs of people of color. We can’t have a Democratic nominee, let alone a president, who still believes that weed and the people who smoke it are the enemy of the people. We already have one of those.

“Gateway drug,” is a nasty old phrase that stuffy-shirted conservatives and anti-weed apologists would spew in the 1960s and the '70s to demonize not only hippies, but also people of color, suggesting that it was being foisted on children who would soon find themselves irresistibly attracted to heroin, or later cocaine or meth. Stacks of propaganda videos were produced to strike fear in people about the “dangers of grass.”

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But there is literally no clinical evidence that demonstrably proves marijuana is a gateway to anything other than maybe a steep pizza delivery bill and a burn mark on your parka.

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which refuses to acknowledge any new research on marijuana and stubbornly insists on keeping it classified as a Schedule I substance — says “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, "harder" substances.” Other data shows that marijuana users, compared to alcohol, nicotine and cocaine users, are the least likely to become dependent at all. Studies of high schoolers, however, point to the fact that a gateway drug does exist … and it’s alcohol.

But alcohol doesn’t even have to be a gateway to be deadly. In the show “Adam Ruins Everything” on TruTV, comedian and host Adam Conover offers research comparing alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. While alcohol kills 88,000 people per year, and while tobacco kills 480,000 people per year, cannabis kills zero people per year.

Biden clearly has his priorities backward. When he should be directing his comments toward booze and cigarettes, he instead repeats old, unsubstantiated '70s claims that are as dead as disco. If weed hadn’t been demonized like it was in the decades of yore — as it is still to this day — perhaps the elite of which Biden is a part of would be toking at cocktail parties in D.C. instead of sipping martinis and whiskey on the rocks. Yet, according to the research, it’s those martinis and whiskey on the rocks that are far more dangerous than marijuana.

And we have to remember that this election is not singularly about the legalization of marijuana across the board, but about getting the current occupant out of The White House, and what Biden has essentially done here is handed millions of young, progressive votes to candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., each of whom support the full, federal legalization of marijuana, expungement of federal and/or state marijuana convictions and reinvestment in communities devastated by the war on drugs.

That’s part of the bigger picture that Biden’s missing sight of altogether with his absurd “gateway” drug statements: The only thing marijuana has ever been a gateway to is this nation’s overtly racist carceral system. The legalization of weed is actually about addressing the overt, nationwide criminalization of people of color who are caught in the snares of this country’s racist marijuana laws. A disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are trundled to jail more than whites for possession, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. “Between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million pot arrests in the U.S. That’s one bust every 37 seconds and hundreds of thousands ensnared in the criminal justice system,” the ACLU reported.

And while Biden says legalization should be up to states — ignoring the fact that the federal government, by classifying it as a Schedule I substance, essentially creates huge legal problems in states that do legalize, and also continues federal enforcement of banking laws, at a minimum — candidates like Sanders argue that any form of criminalization disproportionately harms people of color from coast to coast.

“Too many lives were ruined due to the disastrous criminalization of marijuana,” Sanders, for instance, tweeted in October (at precisely 4:20 p.m.). “Today I am releasing my plan to: Legalize marijuana with executive action, expunge past marijuana convictions, (and) invest in communities most affected by the War on Drugs.”

Sanders, notably, is two years older than Biden, so Biden’s wrongheadedness isn’t about age; it is, instead, about perspective, about being in step with the times and research and about the science that proves what Biden is saying is absolutely false — or, as he likes to say, “malarkey.”

The best chance we have of defeating Trump in 2020 won’t be with a candidate who repeats the racist anti-marijuana propaganda of the '60s and the '70s, but someone who lives in the now. Trump is already replaying his 2016 flirtation with legalization; Democrats cannot afford to lose the pro-weed vote so that Biden can appeal to a few centrist folks who won’t vote on this issue anyway.