During his 36 years in the Senate, Joe Biden helped craft some of the strictest anti-drug laws of the 1980s and 1990s. But drug reform advocates say his own children were able to avoid the brunt of these laws because they were white and wealthy.
The 76-year-old former vice president's daughter Ashley, now 37, was arrested for marijuana possession at age 17. Records show the prosecutor declined to pursue the charges. A decade later, a "friend" of Ashley Bidenattempted to sellthe New York Posta 43-minute hidden-camera video purportedly showing Ashley snorting cocaine. The police did not get involved.
Biden’s son Hunter, now 49, joined the Navy Reserves in 2012 after receiving two special waivers, one because he was three years over the age limit of 40 andanother for a"drug-related incident when he was a young man." A month into his service, he tested positive for cocaine during a random drug test and was discharged.
In 2017 divorce papers, Hunter Biden's then-wife Kathleenstated hespent "extravagantly on his own interests (including drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, strip clubs, and gifts for women with whom he has sexual relations)." The same year, it emerged that Hunter Biden was in a relationship with his late brother Beau's widow, Hallie. Hunter Biden separated from Kathleen five months after Beau's death from brain cancer at age 46 in May 2015.
Criminal justice reform advocates say the Bidens, none of whom have served any jail time for drug offenses, are a clear example of how racial and economic privilege play a role in drug enforcement.
"Whatever kind of privilege Biden’s children experience in those interactions, they certainly are representative of what happens every day in America,” said Betty Aldworth, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “The discretion allowed to prosecutors and the police when deciding who to charge and who not to charge is far too often based on factors like race and economic power.”
Michael Collins, national director for Drug Policy Action, described a “double standard in how we approach drugs in this country.” He said: “Drugs are used by people of all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds, but the negative impact, especially when it comes to incarceration, especially comes on people of color."
Biden’s daughter Ashley was arrested in New Orleans for possession of marijuana while attending Tulane University on Sept. 22, 1999. She was released on a $1,000 bond, according to court records. The case was never prosecuted because the district attorney declined to pick up the charges, according to an administrator at the Orleans Parish Magistrate Court.
She was also arrested on July 13, 2001, for underage drinking in Howard County, Md., and was issued a bench warrant for failing to appear at a hearing on Oct. 31. She pleaded guilty and was fined $125, according to court records. In August 2002, she was arrested again on a misdemeanor charge for allegedly obstructing police officers who were responding to an altercation at a bar in Chicago. According toreports, Ashley Biden “blocked the officer’s path and made intimidating statements” after a patron threw a bottle at the police.
Hunter Biden joined the Navy Reserves as an officer in 2012. Friends say the move was part of a plan for a political career he believed might take him to the White House. After his discharge, a Navy spokesperson declined to comment on whether it was “honorable,” “general under honorable conditions,” or “other than honorable.” After his divorce from Kathleen, to whom he had been married 23 years and had three children with, Hunter Biden said that one of the lessons had been: "Love people and find a way to love yourself."
Stephen Karns, an attorney who specializes in defending members of the military, said service members who are thrown out due to failed drug tests usually receive either “general” or “other than honorable” discharges. He said the U.S. Air Force is known to court martial members for failed drug tests, but this is less common in the Navy.
Joe Biden was one of the most prominent political supporters of the drug war in the 1980s and 1990s, helping to institute mandatory minimum prison sentences and drug testing of federal employees, and backing military-style prison camps for inmates who failed drug tests. He also helped draft the 1994 crime law that implemented mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders and increased funding for prisons by nearly $10 billion.
Biden recentlydistancedhimself from those positions, saying in January that he had made a “big mistake” by pushing for tougher prison sentences for crack cocaine possession. “We thought, we were told by the experts, that crack, you never go back; it was somehow fundamentally different. It’s not different,”saidBiden during an event honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. in January.
Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at the Sentencing Project, said she believes Biden has genuinely changed his mind on the issues. She said she worked with him on eliminating the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine possession, a law that Biden had previously helped institute, in the mid-2000s.
"My experience working with his office, when he was a senator in the mid-2000s, and after he joined the Obama administration, he definitely had a change of heart,” said Gotsch. Biden introduced a bill to end the sentencing disparity for crack cocaine while running for president in 2007. After he became vice president, Biden continued to lobby congress for similar legislation and eventually helped get a bill passed that reduced but did not eliminate the sentencing disparity.
Gotsch said Biden’s staffers “were the ones during the White House meetings saying we have to get this done.”
But Biden’s apology hasn’t reassured all drug law reform advocates. Collins said Biden appeared to be “blatantly doing it for political gain.”
He said: “He’s far and away the worst candidate in the field on drug policy. You could take the worst positions of all the candidates put together and they don’t even come close. He now has to atone for the sins of the past, but I don’t think it’s genuine. I think it’s opportunistic.”
Aldworth, the executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said her organization also has reservations about Biden’s philosophy and wants to see more details about his proposals.
“While he has recanted on some of those policies, we continue to have concerns about the philosophy that drove them,” she said. “I think that in order for an organization like ours to feel comfortable with the positions he might take as president, we would be looking at concrete proposals about dismantling the harms he has created.”