President Biden has finally announced a groundbreaking reform of federal cannabis policy, beginning by pardoning thousands of people nationwide convicted of marijuana possession. In a statement from the White House, the President also said his administration would review the classification of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act for possible descheduling.
Who Will President Biden's Cannabis Pardons Affect?
The pardons will apply to all people convicted of simple cannabis possession, from the 1970s to the present day. According to the New York Times, officials “noted that about 6,500 people were convicted of simple possession between 1992 and 2021, not counting legal permanent residents.” Those who were convicted under the District of Columbia drug laws, considered to number in the thousands, will also be pardoned.
However, pardons won’t apply to people convicted of selling or distributing cannabis. Officials report that no people are now serving time in federal prisons solely for cannabis possession (cannabis prisoners who remain incarcerated may be subject to state laws or may have been sentenced due to other charges as well). Still, Biden’s action will help remove obstacles for people trying to get a job, find housing, apply to college or get federal benefits.
Biden's Historic Steps: A Justice Evolution
In addition, President Biden encouraged all state governors to follow his lead. “Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” he explained in the White House statement.
On Twitter, the President was even more direct about the issues he is trying to solve in taking these historic steps. “Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives — for conduct that is legal in many states,” his post read. “That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction. Today, we begin to right these wrongs.” Continuing on in a video, he added, “While white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people are arrested, prosecuted and convicted at disproportionately higher rates.”
As the Times’ coverage noted, these moves are part of a long evolution on criminal justice for Biden. During his 36 years in the Senate, Biden passed several laws that laid the groundwork for mass incarceration - something that many in the restorative justice community are quick to point out. While campaigning for president in 2020, he apologized for some of his more aggressive measures, such as the 1994 crime bill, and promised to provide more leniency to those with nonviolent drug charges. Often on the campaign trail, as the President commented in his statement, he expressed that no one should be imprisoned for marijuana.
Justice Advocates React To President Biden's Cannabis Reforms
Though Biden’s announcement has prompted a full spectrum of reactions from people across the country, with anti-legalization critics lashing out and some skeptical advocates seeing it as too little, too late (Udi Ofer, former national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the actions “a drop in the ocean of injustice”), there has been great celebration from many in and outside of the cannabis industry.
Inimai Chettiar, Federal Director of the bipartisan Justice Action Network, hailed the President’s move “a really good step.” She honed in on Biden’s directive to review how future cannabis crimes are prosecuted, saying “That’s trying to change a policy decision that was made, that marijuana is as dangerous as these other drugs, which we know is not true.”
Of course, those in the cannabis industry know this isn’t a drug at all, but a plant. For Chris Walsh, CEO of Marijuana Business Daily (MJBiz), the President’s statement is a very welcoming sign that our federal government may be ready to accept that fact.
“President Biden finally said what the majority of people in the U.S. think: current federal laws around marijuana make no sense,” Walsh said in response to the news. “It’s about time. The fact that people are still sitting in jail solely for simple cannabis possession while most states in the country have legalized marijuana and the industry generates $30 billion in annual sales is a travesty. This is as strong an indication as we’ve seen from a federal perspective that we might finally be on the cusp of major reform – which could ultimately lead to immense positive change for cannabis businesses.”
How Will President Biden's Cannabis Reforms Affect The Midterm Elections?
Not only that, but the timing of Biden’s directives could help uplift Democratic candidates in this year’s midterm elections as well, particularly those who have been strongly pro-cannabis in their campaign platforms. The President couldn’t call for the complete decriminalization of cannabis, but he and many reports of the announcement have noted that this is an action Congress will need to take. What better way to ensure that Congress does this, than support candidates who have been all-in for the plant?
Notably, Mandela Barnes (D-WI), Charles Booker (D-KY), Gary Chambers (D-LA), Val Demings (D-FL), John Fetterman (D-PA), and Raphael Warnock (D-GA) are among those in current Senate races who have pledged to bring crucial new cannabis legislation to their respective states. We urge our readers to research these candidates and pro-cannabis representatives in their areas. (For more information on state and local candidates, visit NORML’s Smoke The Vote.)
Today, let us honor a landmark decision that our country has been awaiting for generations. Let’s use this as the first step to a better future, for those who love cannabis, and hopefully toward eventual justice for all.
Featured image: President Joseph Biden announces federal cannabis policy reforms (C) ABC News via screengrab