Crack Cocaine and Criminals: A Look at Joe Biden’s Political Past

What does it mean for the future of drug policy and treatment in America?

Image via Stefano Garau on Shutterstock

For five days, the nation anxiously waited on standby while a handful of key battleground states finished counting their ballots. We finally received confirmation on November 8th that former Vice President Joe Biden was the projected winner of the election. Despite Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of mass voter fraud and a “rigged” election, Joe Biden will inevitably be sworn-in as the 46th President of the United States come January.

The fact that this election was as dramatic as it was isn’t surprising. The year 2020 has been full of turmoil and adversity for America — especially for the millions of individuals who are also battling a substance use disorder on top of everything else.

Despite making many lofty promises, the Trump administration has made very little progress regarding drug policy or access to addiction treatment services. Covid-19 has been exacerbating substance use and mental illness over the last year, and the number of deaths from drug overdoses is higher than ever. Yet Trump’s focus over the previous year was not on public health or anything else besides campaigning.

So what does Biden’s victory mean for the future of drug policy in America? What impact will this election have on our country’s on-going fight against the opioid epidemic as well as rising rates of stimulant usage? One thing is clear: there is no time to lose.

To get a possible idea of what we can expect from Joe Biden during his next few years in office, we can take a closer look at a few things:

  • The political ideology and policies he supported earlier in his political career
  • The impact that those policies had on drug reform in America
  • How his outlook towards drug addiction and criminal justice reform have changed in more recent years
  • The official proposals he laid out during his campaign.

Some Background

Joe Biden has a sordid history with drug policy. Thirty years ago, he was directly responsible for drafting some of the most detrimental legislation ever written regarding criminal justice reform. More recently, however, the former Vice President has publicly admitted his past mistakes and started apologizing for their damages. Since his early days in politics, he has also endured several personal tragedies and experienced firsthand how a person’s substance abuse can affect the entire family unit. These experiences have changed him.

If you’re not familiar with Joe Biden’s past political career, it stretches over four decades. He entered the U.S. Senate in 1973, and by the 1980s, he rose to become the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. During Biden’s early career, America began one of the most painful periods of criminal justice reform in our nation’s history — much of which was in response to the social turmoil that ensued after the introduction of crack cocaine into American cities.

Powdered cocaine had long been the drug of white professionals and the wealthy elite. During the early 1980s, traffickers began to sell cocaine in the solid, smokable form known as crack. This form was sold in smaller, less expensive amounts, making it available to younger users with lower incomes.

Crack cocaine use exploded in large urban areas where social and economic chaos was already present. Many young men (many of whom were African American) began selling crack due to the opportunity it presented for economic advancement in a system that often offered few other viable options.

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With the introduction of crack cocaine came an increase in drug-related violent crime, especially among inner-city youths. A 1995 study found that the homicide rate more than doubled between 1984 and 1994 for Black males between 14 and 17.

Drugs were a real problem, but the media did a lot in sensationalizing the dangers of crack cocaine. News reports frequently exaggerated claims about the risks that dealers and addicts posed to the public and stoked fears that violence from the inner cities would spill into suburban neighborhoods. The media became even more focused on drug use after two public sports stars — Len Bias and Don Rogers — died from cocaine-related overdoses in 1986.

Although it had officially begun under President Nixon, the “War On Drugs” significantly amped up after President Reagan took office in 1981. His wife, Nancy Reagan, started a highly-publicized anti-drug campaign based on the now iconic slogan “Just Say No.”

During this time, Republicans and Democrats alike tried to gain public favor and win votes by promising to crack down on illegal drugs, operating under the mistaken assumption that the fear of harsh punishment would deter drug use. Like many other politicians at the time, Joe Biden had developed a “tough on crime” attitude in response to the public’s concerns and fears.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986

Lawmakers passed a great deal of legislation in the 1980s and 1990s to directly respond to the public panic surrounding drug use. Much of this legislation was either written or sponsored by Joe Biden during his time in the Senate.

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It’s no secret that some of this legislation had a profoundly negative impact on our society that reverberated through an entire generation, especially for African Americans. Some of these tough on crime policies made problems worse than they already were by making drug use a law enforcement issue rather than a public health one.

The most significant piece of drug-related legislation written during the 1980s was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law had several long-lasting implications, including substantially increasing the types of drug offenses that carried mandatory minimum sentences.

The most consequential provision of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, however, was known as the “100–1 rule”. At the time, many experts held the false belief that crack was more addictive and dangerous than powdered cocaine and that crack dealers were more likely to be violent. As a result of this incorrect assumption, the 100–1 rule created separate penalties for the trafficking or possession of powdered cocaine versus crack cocaine. Offenses involving only 5 grams of crack carried the same five years without parole minimum sentencing that trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine did.

Because crack can be accessed more easily by more impoverished Americans — many of whom are African American — the 100–1 rule resulted in a significantly disproportionate number of African Americans incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Laws that were supposedly designed to target higher-level drug kingpins resulted in flooding the courts with small-time street-corner dealers and addicts.

Criticisms of the 100–1 rule eventually led to a study by the federal government regarding the effect the law had on the national prison population. The study found that in 1993, black males made up 88.3% of those convicted for federal crack offenses, even though two-thirds of crack users were either white or Hispanic.

It’s worth mentioning that there were a few good things to come from the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. It did authorize billions of dollars in spending for federal block grants to be used for substance abuse treatment, drug counseling and education, as well as AIDS research. It also included the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which required colleges to establish drug abuse prevention programs.

The 1994 Crime Bill

Another piece of legislation that Joe Biden played a significant role in shaping and bringing into reality was the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — or the 1994 crime bill. Signed into effect by President Bill Clinton, the bill aimed to address rising crime rates in the country.

The bill included the infamous “three strikes provision,” which mandated life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more previous convictions, including drug crimes. It also created sixty new death penalty offenses, offered grants to states for building new prisons, and cracked down on gang-related activities.

Although intended to decrease crime and drug-related violence, studies suggest that the Crime Bill had little impact on either. Instead, the result increased mass incarceration — with a disproportionately higher number of African Americans ending up in jail. Although violent crime decreased by 32% between 1993 and 2000, theories suggest this was due to various factors other than the push for stricter sentencing.

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Although overshadowed by its negative consequences, the 1994 crime bill had some positive components to it as well — which Biden has alluded to when questioned about his role in drafting the bill. These positive components include provisions like the Violence Against Women Act, the ten-year ban on assault rifles, and the improved funding for firearms background checks. The law also allocated money in the budget for drug courts — to divert some lower-level drug offenders out of the prison system and into treatment.

Still Affecting Progress Today

Although drafted over twenty-five years ago, Biden’s legislation still impacts drug reform and treatment. One example of this would be the recent application of the Emergency Crack Control Act (known as the “Crack House Statute”), a part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This bill made it a felony to knowingly rent, lease, or manage any building or space used to make, sell, or use drugs.

In 2003, Joe Biden authored an expanded version of this legislation — the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (or RAVE) Act, which added temporary locations like warehouses or fields — both typical venues for MDMA fueled parties and festivals.

Recently, prosecutors used the Crack House Statute as the grounds of their defense in a lawsuit filed against a non-profit organization called Safeway. Safeway was laying the groundwork to open the nation’s first overdose prevention site in Philadephia.

Overdose prevention sites, or safe injection facilities, are places where injection drug users can inject pre-obtained drugs under medical supervision. If a user suffers an overdose, they can quickly be given a medication like Narcan to reverse the sedating effects and prevent death. Safe injection facilities also provide sterile equipment to drug users and help connect them with treatment services.

These facilities have operated successfully in Europe for the last thirty years and are now on trial in Canada. However, there has been staunch opposition towards opening safe injection sites in the United States due to a false belief that these programs will increase drug use, deter entrance to treatment, and increase local crime.

Studies have found that these fears are unfounded and that supervised injection sites can lower the number of overdose deaths by 30% and significantly decrease the transmission of AIDS and other blood-borne illnesses. Public health experts suggest that the severity of the current opioid crisis in the United States, combined with the number of overdose deaths each year, necessitates implementing these programs.

Cities such as New York, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco have all developed preliminary plans to open some of these overdose prevention sites. However, Safeway had gotten farther in laying the groundwork than anyone yet so far. Using Biden’s Crack House Statute as grounds for their defense, the prosecution claimed that the knowledge of illegal drug use on the property would serve as a violation. The bill’s intent was never to obstruct medical facilities from trying to save lives.

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Biden’s Stance Changes Over Time

It’s important to note that Joe Biden’s “tough on crime” views during the 1980s and 90s were actually in line with most other Democrats’ mainstream opinions. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed in 1986 with an overwhelming majority in both the Senate and the House.

However, in light of what we now know about the impact these bills had, it’s no surprise that Joe Biden has faced criticisms for his support of them. He had apologized in the past for promoting these policies, even before his most recent campaign for Presidency began. At a 2008 Senate hearing, he admitted being “a part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then.” And in 2019, he again referenced his past views towards criminal justice, saying, “I haven’t always been right… but I’ve always tried.”

In his last few years in the Senate, the former Vice President supported the full elimination of crack and powder cocaine’s sentencing disparity, which was officially reduced from 100–1 to 18–1 in the Fair Sentencing Act. That new law was signed into effect by President Barrack Obama in 2010 while Joe Biden was Vice President.

Joe Biden also played a significant role in securing Democratic support for one of the most significant contributions in the advancement of addiction treatment — the passing of the Affordable Health Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. This enormous and complicated piece of legislation was also signed into effect by President Obama in 2010 while Joe Biden was Vice President.

Obamacare made healthcare more attainable for people of all income levels. It made mental health treatment more accessible and listed substance use disorders as one of the ten essential health benefits that all insurance plans on the national exchange or covered by Medicaid must include in their covered services.

Personal Connection to Addiction

The one thing that has undoubtedly had the most impact on changing Joe Biden’s outlook towards addiction has been the life-changing experience of personally watching someone he cares for being affected by it. His youngest son Hunter’s substance use disorder became public knowledge over this last year.

Joe Biden’s opponents have attempted to use this as ammunition against his family. Yet, rather than express shame or disappointment, Biden has instead praised his son for acknowledging his substance abuse problems and getting treatment. I previously wrote about Biden’s heartbreakingly honest comments during the first presidential debate and why they are a perfect example of the type of understanding and compassion this country needs about addiction right now.

Image via Richard Gunion on Dreamstime

It appears that Joe Biden’s connection to drug addiction has softened his “tough love” attitude, which formed the legislation he proposed during his time in the Senate. Hopefully, he can continue to draw from that personal experience when implementing future drug policy.

Sadly, however, Biden’s change in attitude reflects a larger theme in public opinion. When America’s drug problem was crack cocaine and heavily associated with the African American population in urban areas, the general view was far less empathetic than it currently is towards the white suburbanites impacted by the opioid epidemic. This shift in the drug user’s socioeconomic profile has affected the public opinion about addiction and the need for solutions.

Biden’s Plan For The Future

According to his website, Biden has several strategies he hopes to implement regarding criminal justice and drug policy reform, and by which he plans to combat the opioid epidemic. A few of these goals include:

  • Reducing the number of incarcerated individuals by diverting those charged with only drug offenses into drug courts and treatment programs.
  • Investing $125 billion over ten years to fund various treatment strategies and harm reduction programs, improving access to Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), and ensuring that communities have access to medications and tools needed to prevent overdoses. These funds will be paid for by raising taxes on the profits of pharmaceutical corporations.
  • Improving research for alternative treatments for chronic pain and banning drug companies from providing cash payments or other incentives to doctors and prescribers
  • Continue to build upon the Affordable Care Act to ensure access to quality healthcare, including treatment for mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

Only time will tell what the new President-elect will or will not accomplish regarding addiction and drug use in America. Hopefully, he will emphasize essential goals — such as decreasing stigma and improving access to treatment service — more than this current administration has.

Biden needs to continue to repent for his previous support of “tough on crime” legislation. He should focus more on what he’s learned through his son’s experience with the disease of addiction. Perhaps then we can hope to see some real progress — at a time when our nation needs it most. 2020 has been a year of turmoil and chaos, but I like to think that this election is a glimmer of hope, which alludes to the possibility of better things to come.

Freelance writer, nurse, and grateful recovering addict.

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