Commentary: Joe Biden and the kinder, gentler war on drugs

By Abraham Gutman, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Political News

How can Joe Biden, who championed the foundational federal laws of the war on drugs over the last 40 years, be so compassionate toward his son's struggle with addiction?

When President Donald Trump tried to hit Biden during their first debate by mocking his son Hunter for drug use, the former vice president had a clear answer: "My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He's overtaken it. He's fixed it. He's worked on it. And I'm proud of him."

Based on content hacked by an unknown entity and provided by Rudy Giuliani to the New York Post — which chose to publish despite objections from within its own newsroom — Biden's acceptance of Hunter was not performative. From a rehab facility in 2019 (before Biden announced his presidential bid), Hunter texted his father that as a "f__d up addict" he damaged the senior Biden's political career. His father responded: "Good morning my beautiful son. I miss you and I love you. Dad." The veracity of the text is not confirmed, but this tone tracks with Biden's public statements about Hunter, who has dealt with addiction to stimulants such as cocaine.

The empathy in Joe Biden's response is inspiring — and should not be taken for granted. For generations, Americans learned that "tough love" is the way to help a loved one in addiction. If they don't hit "rock bottom," parents are told, their kids will not be able to conquer addiction — ignoring the fact that for 70,000 people a year "rock bottom" means death.

But Biden's response is also surprising because of his record on addiction, in legislation and use of language.

In 1986, Biden introduced the legislation that became known as the Crack House Statute, extending criminal liability to the owners of property where drug activity occurred. That same law is used today by Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney William McSwain to argue that a supervised injection site in Philadelphia would violate federal law. In fact, to make his case in federal court, McSwain quoted Biden. In the early 2000s, Biden led the push to strengthen the law to include places where raves are held and in a Senate hearing said: "The promoter, the guy who owned the building, I'd put the son of a gun in jail!"


As senator, Biden supported stiff penalties for people in addiction and the death penalty for people who sold drugs. During a 1989 address on drug legislation, Biden told the audience of the National Press Club: "There are almost a million (cocaine) addicts running around out there. Already hooked. Already under. Already robbing you. Already breaking into your homes. And there is no answer for those folks but to put them in jail permanently." In a 1991 remark on the Senate floor, Biden lamented that the George H.W. Bush administration rarely used the death penalty for people who sold drugs.

Biden also played a key role in legislation that created the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine, resulting in much harsher sentences for Black compared with white drug users.

Joe Biden has gone from viewing people who use drugs as "addicts running around ... Already robbing you" to his "beautiful son." Part of that is likely the impact of seeing the struggle of drug addiction up close, and Biden's demonstrated willingness to evolve his thinking on an issue.

But another part is that the war on drugs was never really about individuals' addiction. It was a form of social control over specific communities, particularly the Black community, as a top adviser to President Richard Nixon admitted.


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