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Stanton Peele Stanton Peele

Dear Joe Biden, Is Cocaine Use Still Either a Crime or a Disease?

The Obama administration’s point man for addressing addiction and maintaining the illegality of drugs discovered that his son uses drugs. Can the VP learn from this?

12 Substance

Vice President Joe Biden, before he left the Senate, proposed the “Recognizing Addiction as a Disease Act of 2007.” The bill had two sections:

“(1) Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences… These brain changes can be long lasting, and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs…

(2) The pejorative term abuse used in connection with diseases of addiction has the adverse effect of increasing social stigma and personal shame…”

In February Biden’s son Hunter was discharged from the Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine. But his expulsion was only revealed last Thursday by the Wall Street Journal.

Hunter then confirmed his drug use to CNN and apologized: “It was the honor of my life to serve in the US Navy, and I deeply regret and am embarrassed that my actions led to my administrative discharge. I respect the Navy’s decision. With the love and support of my family, I’m moving forward.”

Do you think his behavior was a disease, or was it criminal behavior? Joe, this seems to be a teachable moment. But I just don’t sense that you are learning from it.

This does not read like the usual confession public figures make after they are caught taking drugs. That is, instead of saying that he had a drug problem and was entering rehab, Hunter seems only to have been embarrassed by the revelation of his drug use and his being cashiered from the military.

Perhaps Hunter had felt he could conceal his discharge so he wouldn’t have to “confess” that he was an addict who required rehab. Meanwhile, no family member—the vice president, brother Beau (Delaware’s attorney general), or highly visible stepmother and educator Dr. Jill Biden—has discussed Hunter’s drug experiences. Yet I’m sure they all have strong beliefs about drugs. Where does Hunter fit into those views?

We know Joe Biden’s belief system about drugs: Drug use is a disease, which should not be described using the pejorative term abuse. The “Recognizing Addiction as a Disease Act” had the explicit goal of removing “social stigma and personal shame” from taking drugs. So why is his son deep in regret and embarrassment? The shame is seemingly because Hunter used cocaine voluntarily, rather than having a brain disease.

Of course, cocaine and other drug use is—irrationally—illegal. And Joe Biden, along with his ardent views on the disease of drug addiction, spearheads the Obama administration’s opposition to drug decriminalization. According to Kevin Sabet, a former top Obama administration adviser on marijuana policy who now campaigns zealously against legalization, Biden drives this administration’s hard-line policy: “The vice president has a special interest in this issue. As long as he is vice president, we’re very far off from legalization being a reality.” *

Yet Hunter seems to have suffered no legal consequences. According to his father’s reckoning, shouldn’t he have faced criminal sanctions? Hunter, 44, also has three daughters. When I worked in the public defender’s office in New Jersey, parents on the Department of Youth and Family Services rolls who tested positive for drugs lost custody of their children.

We may wonder how Biden can view drug use as both a disease and criminal behavior. But actually, they’re two sides of the same coin: In neither view is drug use normal or acceptable.

To find out where Hunter’s drug use fits in the VP’s thinking, here are the questions I would like to put to Joe Biden:

Dear Mr. Vice President,

As garrulous as you are and given your great interest in drugs and addiction, it’s odd that you haven’t discussed your son’s cocaine use publicly. Do you think his behavior was a disease, or was it criminal behavior?

From where I’m standing, the lack of any claim that he has a drug problem (and apparently of addiction treatment) or any criminal sanctions in his case suggests that neither view was applied to your son.

You seem to have had no idea Hunter was a drug user until he was kicked out of the Navy Reserve. Doesn’t his use of cocaine indicate that, at the highest levels of American society and in its leading families, drug use is normal?

Joe, your grandchildren are being raised by someone who has probably used drugs more than once (he also had a  “drug-related incident” in his youth)! According to you, habitual drug use is a chronic, relapsing brain disease. Do you think the children should be removed from that home?

You simultaneously believe that drug use should be illegal. But Hunter suffered no legal penalties, in criminal or family court, for his transgression. Why not? Is that fair? And you’re a Democrat!

Do you know how Hunter uses or did use drugs? Was he a frequent, even a heavy drug user? Or did he use casually and occasionally? For how long?  This information might tell us a lot about drug use and its consequences. Maybe drugs don’t have the effects we suppose that they do.  Shouldn’t we all learn from your and your son’s experiences?

Have you asked Hunter his views on drug use? Does he feel he had a disease? Did he enjoy using cocaine? Did he feel he could manage his drug use? Or don’t you care about your son’s views? After all, he’s only a drug user.

Perhaps, Joe, your recent family situation might change your thinking about who uses drugs, why they use them, how drug use can be managed within a normal life, and the irrational viciousness of criminal penalties. Or do you reject this real-world feedback?

Joe, this seems to be a teachable moment. But I just don’t sense that you are learning from it.

(Oh, I’m still waiting to hear back about my application to become the czar for normalized drug use. Could you give your boss a nudge?)

Yours faithfully,


* This analysis was written in 2012. Biden has always been a gung-ho drug warrior, although in recent years he has “evolved a bit on the issue” by working to roll back mandatory minimum sentences and disparities in penalties for crack and powder cocaine.

Stanton Peele, a columnist for Substance.com, has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice, including uncovering natural recovery, identifying addiction as being not essentially linked to drugs, and focusing on social forces and individual choice in addiction since writing (with Archie Brodsky) Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. His website is Peele.net.