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 "[expletive] 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.
Over the last two decades, first prescription drugs, then heroin, then fentanyl made overdose deaths rise dramatically. What has been dubbed an "opioid epidemic" changed the demographics of the communities losing people to overdose. Middle-class suburban white kids were suddenly dying. The way the media covered these deaths changed dramatically from their coverage of the deaths of Black cocaine users, or poor and rural meth users. Addiction was framed as a public health problem, not one of moral decay — something that Big Pharma did to communities and not something that reflected on the community itself.
The language of addiction changed, and attention to treatment for opioid use disorder increased. Still, stigma remains — and with it punitive measures.
If once the excuse for harsh enforcement was that communities need protection from "addicts" who are "already robbing you," law enforcement learned the language of prevention. Drug busts are celebrated through fictional overdose math (police seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in Ohio!), and overdose deaths are treated as murder in order to "deter" drug sale or sharing.
This is the new, allegedly kinder and gentler war on drugs. A double system of justice and treatment expands access to white affluent drug users who prefer opioids, while having little to offer and continuing to penalize Black and Latinx people, especially who use stimulants — all under the guise of public health.
Joe Biden in 2020 reflects the kinder and gentler war on drugs.
The Biden Plan to End the Opioid Crisis includes good suggestions to significantly expand evidence-based opioid addiction treatment. There is even a mention of "syringe services" with respect to funding local initiatives. But the plan largely ignores the need for research and expansion of treatment options, and harm reduction, for stimulant use disorder — despite increasing stimulant-related deaths nationwide. The increase in stimulant-related deaths has contributed to change in the demographics of people dying from overdose, particularly an increase among Black and Latinx cocaine users. If the focus remains solely on opioids, racial disparities in overdose mortality — and opportunities for recovery — will become worse.
In addition, while Biden's plan calls to "end all incarceration for drug use alone and instead divert individuals to drug courts and treatment," it creates avenues to incarcerate. In drug courts, judges act as health care providers and order treatment under threat of incarceration. In a September speech, Biden said that instead of going to prison, anyone convicted of possession "should go to mandatory rehabilitation." But coercive treatment is simply incarceration in a different name — and upon release the risk of overdose death increases.
In practical terms, these recommendations continue the war on drugs. And it won't be the children of senators who end up in coercive settings without liberties.
All of this is still much better than Trump's lack of plan or ounce of empathy. In his 2017 State of the Union address, Trump said, "Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and, ultimately, stop." That didn't happen. He also used moral panic about drugs to enhance his racist anti-immigrant agenda and called on people who sell drugs to be executed. At his best, Trump is where Joe Biden was — and significantly evolved from — three decades ago.
The policy extension of Biden's radical love to his son is a full embrace of harm reduction and expanding the conversation about use disorder beyond opioids. That will require decriminalization of possession and small sale of all drugs, allowing physicians to prescribe heroin to ensure safe supply, and opening supervised injection sites to save lives and form meaningful relationships with users who are justifiably skeptical of the current system. After decades of war on drugs indoctrination, some of these measures will be highly uncomfortable for many Americans. But these are not radical solutions. They're evidence-based and are already saving lives around the world.
Hopefully Biden will win this election. Then his administration should be pushed hard on drug policy. We don't need a kinder and gentler war on drugs. We need a White House capable of guiding drug policy with the compassion of a loving text to a struggling son.
Abraham Gutman is an opinion and editorial writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.