Joe Biden’s history of being a tough presence in the War on Drugs could either help or hurt the opioid crisis if he becomes president, experts say.
In April, as he prepared to announce his presidential candidacy, Joe Biden apologized for his role in creating one of the most insidious aspects of the War on Drugs.
“I got stuck with, because I was chairman of the [Senate] Judiciary Committee, writing most of the drug legislation that occurred in [the 1980s and ’90s],” Biden said while speaking at the University of Pennsylvania as part of a panel on the opioid crisis. “Big mistake was us buying into the idea that crack cocaine was different than powdered cocaine and having [different] penalties.”
Since the late 1990s, more than 700,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses, and for each of the past four years, more Americans have died from drug overdoses than were killed in the wars in Vietnam and Iraq combined. In the War on Drugs, Biden was tough on crime and used his legislative skills to forge a bipartisan consensus for severe anti-drug legislation.
Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said the former vice president “knows that the pharmaceutical companies and executives whose gross malfeasance led to this [opioid] crisis must be held fully accountable,” and called Biden’s work on the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion “the single biggest step ever taken to address the opioid epidemic and the backbone of addiction treatment in America.”
At Penn’s Silfen Forum event on opioids one seat away from Biden sat Dr. Jeanmarie Perrone, a professor at the university’s medical school with a specialty in emergency medicine and opioid use. She said, “We have three patients dying a day in Philadelphia. We are at a huge crisis and that’s why we need safe-injection facilities, safe house[s], other places where we can get people in.”
Also known as “overdose prevention sites,” safe-injection facilities are locations where people with opioid use disorder can consume drugs under medical supervision in order to avoid fatal overdoses. In the United State, however, they are currently against federal law, and Biden is the primary reason why.
In Philadelphia, where Biden’s presidential campaign is headquartered, activists and public health workers actually laid the groundwork for what would be the nation’s first overdose prevention site. However, soon after news of this broke, federal prosecutors filed a lawsuit against Safehouse, the nonprofit organization, preemptively acting to prevent it from opening. In their decision, they cited was an old provision of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, known as the “crack-house statute,” which Biden co-sponsored.
“The abuse of crack cocaine is reaching epidemic proportions,” Biden said while introducing the 1986 act. “[We] are proposing new criminal offenses with stiff penalties for…opening or maintaining a building, or ‘crack house,’ where the drug is produced, sold and used.”
The law makes it illegal to “knowingly open, lease, rent, use or maintain any place, whether permanently or temporarily, for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing or using any controlled substance,” or to “manage or control any place…and knowingly…make available for use, with or without compensation, the place for the purpose of unlawfully…using a controlled substance.”
Biden’s RAVE Act, which was signed into law in 2003 as a section of the PROTECT Act, expanded the provision to allow prosecutors to go after the operators of temporary locations where drugs are used. The measure was written in response to growing concern of MDMA being used at raves.
“If I were governor of my state or mayor of my town,” Biden said in a 2001 hearing on ecstasy, “I would be passing new ordinances relating to stiff criminal penalties for anyone who held a rave. The promoter, the guy who owned the building, I’d put the son of a gun in jail!”
In his April 2019 speech at Penn, Biden suggested that he now understands this. “[O]ne of the things I found most difficult is in private, when you talk to your colleagues…whether they’re in state legislature or governors or senators or congresspersons, they really do not buy into this—they say they do—that addiction is a disease. They think it’s will power,” Biden said. “[T]his is a disease. It’s a disease of the brain.”
If this is the current position Biden wants to take in positioning himself for the election, maybe he will willingly take a second look at the pieces of his history as a policymaker. Calling the modern Drug War Biden’s “legacy” isn’t quite right, says Jasmine Tyler. “He’s alive and the policies are, too. His legacy will be whether he can put an end to this war.”