In a move building on his October 2022 policy reforms, President Biden announced today his intention to expand the criteria for cannabis pardons. The latest proclamation from the White House aims to address the historical injustices related to marijuana convictions, by including pardons for individuals convicted of simple possession, attempted possession, and the use of cannabis on federal land, encompassing areas such as the District of Columbia.
President Biden Commutes Prison Sentences Of Eleven Individuals Serving Time For Nonviolent Drug Offenses
As well as expanding the scope of pardons, the President also commuted the sentences of 11 individuals whom he identified as serving “disproportionately long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.” He noted in his official statement that “all of them would have been eligible to receive significantly lower sentences if they were charged with the same offense today.”
President Biden's Expansion Of Cannabis Pardon Criteria Addresses Historical Injustices
By broadening the scope of who is eligible for pardons, President Biden is acknowledging the adverse impacts of past policies that have disproportionately affected certain communities, particularly communities of color. “Criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” he stated. “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
Will State Governments Follow President Biden's Call For Reform?
Just like his decree from a year before, the President again urged governors to follow his lead and make similar changes to state criminal policies. The majority of people incarcerated on cannabis convictions in the United States are serving on state charges and imprisoned in state-run institutions, not federal ones. In the White House statement, President Biden reminded governors of his belief that “just as no one should be in a federal prison solely due to the use or possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.”
Limitations Of Criminal Justice Reform And Pardon Announcements
Yet while these gestures mark a significant step forward, it's essential to note that no individuals were released from federal prison under the initial action in 2022, nor will any be eligible for release this time around either, according to the Associated Press. The proclamation also does not extend to individuals who were in the U.S. unlawfully at the time of the offense, highlighting the limitations of the current initiative.
However, the pardons are intended to help those seeking to overcome financial obstacles such as finding employment or renting a home. From that perspective, the potential expungement of thousands of convictions from criminal records represents a monumental shift in policy that could have long-term implications for many Americans.
It should also be noted that the expungements won’t be automatic. Individuals who are covered by the expanded criteria for pardons will need to submit applications to the Department of Justice’s pardon attorney office to receive certificates that can be used for housing and employment purposes.
What's Next For Federal Cannabis Policy?
Will these announcements by President Biden prove, as with last year’s, to be largely symbolic rather than actionable? Perhaps. But does it still mean a great deal to the future of American criminal justice reform that the current Commander-in-Chief is willing to have such a public conversation (particularly as certain candidates in the opposing party drill down on their intent to institute harsher penalties for drug charges, up to the death penalty)? Certainly.
There can be no doubt that today’s proclamation is heralding a significant change. By acknowledging the failures of past policies and taking steps to address them, the administration is paving the way for a more equitable future, albeit with certain limitations and challenges that remain to be addressed. As the debate surrounding marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform continues to evolve, these actions may yet serve as a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in America.
Featured image: President Joe Biden. Screengrab via ABC News.