Although the latest talks regarding cannabis legislation have been slightly more hopeful, it seems pretty obvious that President Joe Biden isn’t a diehard supporter of legalizing the plant entirely.
Back in the 1980s, Biden was actually very committed to the war on drugs, and cannabis in particular, helping draft numerous pieces of legislation that would keep low-level, non-violent drug offenders incarcerated for years to come. As of 2010, his opinions hadn’t changed much and he can be quoted saying, “There’s a difference between sending someone to jail for a few ounces [of marijuana] and legalizing. The punishment should fit the crime. But I think legalization is a mistake. I still believe [marijuana] is a gateway drug.”
Fast forward another decade and Joe Biden is the 46th president of the United States, during a time when cannabis legalization is an incredibly polarizing topic on many fronts: economic, social, and health institutions all have a major stake in the industry. At the very least it seems Biden has accepted that cannabis legalization is inevitable, and even mentioned that he thinks “it is at the point where it has to be, basically, legalized.”
However, he maintains his stance in favor of decriminalization over full legalization. But as we already know from watching the many states that have tried it already, decriminalization is a completely pointless step in between prohibition and legalization that allows for too much “interpretation” of the law.
For example, in a decriminalized state, a police officer can take your cannabis, fine you, and send you to court where your case will end up getting thrown out if it meets the criteria of a legal decriminalized amount. So, you’re out the money you spent on flower that remains confiscated, the city doesn’t get any money from your fines because they’re tossed out in court, and the entire ordeal is a mega waste of time for everyone involved.
Regardless, this is what Biden supports. And not only does put him at odds with most US citizens who have been wanting cannabis legalization for years, but it pits him against the majority of his own political party. This year, with Democrats in control of the Senate, leadership just promised to pursue comprehensive cannabis reform legislation within the first term year. To make good on this promise, Joe Biden proposed a plan for mandatory rehabilitation instead of jail/prison time for non-violent drug offenders. The idea might sound good on paper, but it is 100% misguided, and let me tell you why.
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The mandatory rehab proposition
Cannabis has been illegal in the US for the better part of the last century, and as a result, thousands of people have been unjustly incarcerated for completely non-violent offences, and it continues to this day. This puts even more weight on the importance of passing comprehensive cannabis reform legislation.
New laws couldn’t come soon enough, but with any kind of significant legal changes in a country with millions of people, there will undoubtedly be some kinks to work out in the beginning. Many details go into the making of a successful cannabis market – such as social equity, interstate commerce, at-home cultivation, racial justice, business zoning and so forth.
Another important issue is legislating the newly legal product itself. It’s “legal”, yes, but for who? And what amounts are legal? And who is allowed to sell it, and how much? Where can it be grown and where can products be manufactured? The list goes on. Of utmost importance though, is how to deal with people who don’t follow the established guidelines.
According to President Biden, “nobody convicted of a drug crime should go to prison, they should go to mandatory rehabilitation,” he emphasized at a campaign event in Kenosha, Wisconsin late last year. “Instead of building more prisons… we [should] build rehabilitation centers.”
On the surface, it appears like a logical option instead of sending someone to prison. But it begs the question, if court-ordered rehab is mandatory, what happens if the person doesn’t complete the program? Or what if they don’t show up at all? Most likely, they will go to prison. So while it seems like a reasonable way for people to possibly avoid jail, it’s likely that a large number of people will still end up serving time, often based on arbitrary and unrealistic standards that patients are required to meet before they can “graduate” from their treatment programs.
As a matter of fact, a report published in 2017 by the group Physicians for Human Rights found that drug courts and rehab programs “regularly set participants up for failure.” The report went on to say that “Drug courts in the United States routinely fail to provide adequate, medically-sound treatment for substance use disorders, with treatment plans that are at times designed and facilitated by individuals with little to no medical training… Few communities have adequate treatment facilities, insurance plans often won’t finance effective treatment programs, and the criminal justice objectives of drug courts often overrule the medical needs of the patient in ways that threaten the rights and health of participants.”
Skewed data and shady practices at rehabs nationwide
While some drug court advocates claim the programs are a success, the actual data presented is a bit warped – starting with the fact that many of them are funded by privately-run, for-profit facilities that obviously have a vested interest in getting more patients, and subsequently, more funding. Additionally, many of the studies are basing the effectiveness of rehab programs by comparing them to prisons. So by those standards, it’s no surprise that people in rehab facilities have slightly better outcomes than those locked away in prison.
It’s also not unheard of for drug court judges to engage in the same discriminatory practices we see in our regular justice system. Knowing the programs will be evaluated based on a recovery-to-recidivism rate, they often choose enrollees that they believe will be most likely to complete the program successfully; completely glossing over the marginalized groups of people who may actually benefit most from a legitimate treatment program.
And that leads us to another issue with rehab facilities, are they legit? So many programs have been faced lawsuits for unethical, unsafe practices, and outright abuse. Take the notorious treatment program from the 1980s known as Straight, Inc. They demonized casual cannabis use and urge parents to send children who have tried it to their facilities.
Upon investigation, it was revealed that minors in their program were “routinely subjected to unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, mental abuse…and interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping and toileting.” Needless to say, the facilities were all eventually shut down, but many more exist and continue to abuse their patients, causing more problems and lifelong issues than they will ever fix.
The founders of Straight, Inc., Mel and Betty Sembler, took the vast fortune they amassed off the pain of struggling youth to start their own organization – The Drug Free America Foundation. Using their foundation, they funded numerous anti-cannabis campaigns and currently continue to remain major fundraisers for the republican party. Overall, Straight, Inc. is the perfect example of how a rehab facility (or the owners) can get rich for doing absolutely nothing, then use that money in a completely self-serving way. For them, keeping cannabis illegal wasn’t about helping adolescents or bettering the community, it was about lining their pockets and getting as wealthy as possible.
Overcrowding at already congested facilities
As of now, Biden administration plans for forced rehabilitation aren’t concrete yet, but it’s already a common practice in many states where cannabis is still illegal, mainly in the Southern US. There is an obvious problem with forcing people into rehab when they don’t need it: that leaves less room for the people who actually do.
This country is already in the grips of a national opioid crisis, and frighteningly, the number of overdose-related deaths has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to research published this month by the American Medical Association, “In addition to the ongoing challenges presented by the COVID-19 global pandemic, the nation’s opioid epidemic has grown into a much more complicated and deadly drug overdose epidemic … More than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder.”
2020 saw over 81,000 overdoes deaths, compared to just under 71,000 the previous year. People are seeking help and trying to get placed into appropriate rehab facilities, but there just isn’t room for many of them. In most states, rehab wait lists are up 18 months long with hundreds, if not thousands, of people desperately waiting for treatment. Statistics found the most people drop off the list after about 2 weeks.
The most recent data available from the Department of Health and Human Services, states that more than 50% of all cannabis users in treatment were sent there by the courts or the criminal justice system. Less than 20% checked in voluntarily.
According to numerous studies over the last decade gauging the addictive qualities of various substances, cannabis rates lower than alcohol, tobacco, and even caffeine. That’s not to say you can’t become addicted to cannabis, because you totally can (and before you bite my head off, I’ve met people who would spend their rent and grocery money on pot, so that signifies a problem).
For some people, therapy and rehab could be beneficial. But forcing someone with no addiction problems to choose between jail and rehab is completely illogical and not at all in line with “comprehensive” drug reform; and for Biden to even consider this as a possibility for cannabis users, is wrong as can be.