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Joe Biden: '80s Anti-Drug Bills Were "Big Mistake"

By Paul Gaita 04/16/19

"The big mistake was us buying into the idea that crack cocaine was different from the powder cocaine, and having penalties… it should be eliminated," said Biden.

Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden again voiced regret for his support of a 1980s-era anti-drug bill that imposed tougher penalties and prison sentences for drug offenses that, in turn, bolstered disproportionate rates of incarceration in black and Latino communities.

Speaking at a panel on opioid addiction at the University of Pennsylvania on April 11, Biden said that it was a "big mistake" to support the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 which levied more severe sentencing for possession of crack cocaine, a substance more predominantly found in communities of color, than for possession of powder cocaine. 

But Biden, who is weighing his options in regard to a 2020 presidential bid, also noted that the crime bills added drug courts, which he viewed as a positive alternative to incarceration.

Biden, who serves as Presidential Professor of Practice at UPenn, was joined on the panel by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. The panel addressed the national opioid epidemic and efforts to address legal and cultural issues regarding addiction and drug use.

Biden weighed in on several topics in the discussion, including the overwhelming amount of advertising dollars spent by pharmaceutical companies to promote opioid medications, which he described as "criminal."

Biden also said that closer negotiations with countries like China and Mexico, which are regarded as major sources of illicit narcotics, and increases in port security and technology to aid in detection—which he acknowledged was a missed opportunity by the Obama administration—would both help curb the flow of drugs into the United States. Biden specifically targeted President Donald Trump's efforts to build a security barrier between the U.S. and Mexico while discussing this topic.

"Instead of building more barriers, we could take one-tenth the amount of money talked about building the wall and significantly increase the technological capacity at ports of entry," he noted.

And in regard to the aforementioned crime bills, which Biden sponsored—and in the case of the 1986 bill, co-authored—he reiterated statements made at other public events in which he admitted that there had been missteps in his efforts towards criminal sentencing.

"The big mistake was us buying into the idea that crack cocaine was different from the powder cocaine, and having penalties… it should be eliminated," said Biden.

And while acknowledging that he "[gets] beat up on the crime bill," Biden also said that in his mind, there was also a positive outcome to his efforts.

"The crime bill put in drug courts," he said. "I think we have to do a whole lot more of that diversion to have an impact."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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