Can Biden End the Current War on Drugs without Starting a New One?

This president is not your Grandad’s Joe Biden. At least, that seems to be the message of a new White House plan on the administration’s plans on drug policy. Emphasizing racial equity and “harm reduction” approaches, the plan is an historic departure from the punitive War on Drugs approach Biden once championed. But, if the administration truly hopes to address disparities in health and justice, it will have to apply these principles to all substance use behaviors. And, unfortunately, it may turn out that the biggest obstacle to this approach is members of Biden’s own party.

As I wrote previously, Biden’s evolution on drug policy is no doubt thanks to the progressive Democrats who have been pushing him to get out of the way of drug decriminalization. Their support for cannabis legalization reflects constituent demand, but also their longstanding recognition of the value of harm reduction. For decades, progressives have argued for policies that mitigate harms associated with sex and substance use rather than try to eliminate the behaviors entirely. Programs that encourage clean needle use, maintenance therapies (i.e. methadone), safe injection sites, sexual education, and greater access to contraceptives are all based on the understanding that government policy can’t stop people from engaging in risky behaviors, but it can encourage them to do so in less risky ways.

Drug prohibition has never stopped drug use. At best, such restrictions merely push users toward different substances, methods of use, or suppliers. In most cases, this means buying drugs on the street, where users face even greater dangers from illegal and sometimes violent dealers and lower-quality or adulterated products. At worst, overzealous enforcement of such bans creates the situation in which we are currently mired—where drug use itself is treated as a crime, making users vulnerable to exploitation, stigmatized, and generally alienated from the social and institutional support that might actually help them. Progressives seem to understand all this, at least that is, until it comes to tobacco.

Apart from a few highly publicized incidents, tobacco isn’t usually though of as part of the War on Drugs. Adults can still legally purchase cigarettes, which are sold in just about every gas station, corner store, and bodega in the country. Yet, cigarette trafficking has become an enormous global industry and an important source of revenue for crime syndicates around the world, including in the U.S. Even though cigarettesare not “banned,” policies that restrict access, and especially those that raise the price of cigarettes, have made purchasing them legally impossible for many adults. That might be considered a good thing if it actually stopped people from smoking, but it doesn’t. As with any other form of drug control, all it has done is changed how people get their smokes.

In high tax areas, like New York, many low-income smokers get their tobacco products from “cigarette men”—dealers who bootleg cigarettes from lower-tax states or sell them singly (loosies). In some places, like New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, these dealers aren’t just criminals profiting off of illegal goods. Rather, they are viewed by smokers and nonsmokers alike as a reasonable and justifiable response to an unjust system. In economically depressed neighborhoods, illegal cigarette sales are a “win-win,” where the dealers get to earn a reliable income by providing their customers with a product they want at a price they can afford. But, along with providing a new source of revenue for dealers, it also gives law enforcement another excuse to target communities of color, with one resident telling researchers that the cops “know what’s going on and … [that] we have a big demand for this … and the most people they’re grabbing and putting in jail are people of color.”

Ironically, it is primarily progressive Democrats—sometimes the very same individuals advocating for cannabis legalization on racial justice grounds—who continue to push for more restrictive policies on all non-pharmaceutical sources of nicotine. Given the death and disease caused by smoking, their intentions are certainly good, but, as they’ve acknowledged for other substances and behaviors, government can’t force people to give up nicotine. But, it can reduce harm by adopting policies that encourage smokers to switch to safer sources of the substances. Such alternatives exist and have achieved impressive reductions in smoking, disease, and death in countries that embrace their use. America is not one of those countries, and it is thanks, in no small part, to progressive democrats.

While technically still legal in the U.S., the federal and state governments have taken an increasingly prohibitionist stance toward e-cigarettes, adopting or considering policies that would restrict where and how they can be sold, ban the flavor options that make them attractive and effective for adult smoking cessation, and increase taxes to make e-cigarettes as expensive as—if not more expensive than—combustible cigarettes.

As with any other form of prohibition, this approach will not stop adults or children from seeking out nicotine: it will only guarantee they do so in the most harmful ways possible, continuing to smoke or turning the illicit market that will, no doubt, rise to meet the demand. And it is progressive Democrats leading the charge in this new front of the drug war.

If the Biden administration truly wants to wind down the War on Drugs, reduce racial disparities, and save lives, it should resist this drug double standard and apply the president’s harm reduction plan to all substances, including tobacco.