By Brett Wilkins / Common Dreams
Reasserting that “no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana,” U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday that he is planning to issue an executive order pardoning everyone convicted of low-level marijuana possession, a move that drew applause from drug policy reform advocates.
“Sending people to jail for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives—for conduct that is legal in many states. That’s before you address the clear racial disparities around prosecution and conviction,” Biden—who as recently as 2019 called cannabis a “gateway drug”—tweeted. “Today, we begin to right these wrongs.”
“First: I’m pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession,” the president stated. “There are thousands of people who were previously convicted of simple possession who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result. My pardon will remove this burden.”
“Second: I’m calling on governors to pardon simple state marijuana possession offenses,” he continued. “Just as no one should be in a federal prison solely for possessing marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.”
“Third: We classify marijuana at the same level as heroin—and more serious than fentanyl. It makes no sense,” Biden asserted, adding that he’s asking U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland “to initiate the process of reviewing how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”
According to the most recently available figures from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, less than 100 people were federally sentenced for simple marijuana possession in 2017.
However, campaigners against the failed War on Drugs hailed the president’s announcement, with the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen tweeting, “This is huge.”
Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) said in a statement that “many of the efforts taken and proposed by the president today are long overdue.”
“For nearly two years, NORML has called upon the administration to fulfill the president’s campaign promise to provide relief to those stigmatized with a low-level cannabis conviction,” he continued. “We are pleased that today President Biden is following through on this pledge and that he is also encouraging governors to take similar steps to ensure that the tens of millions of Americans with state-level convictions for past marijuana crimes can finally move forward with their lives.”
Moving forward, the administration must work collaboratively with congressional leadership to repeal America’s failed marijuana criminalization laws,” Altieri added. “Congress should be inspired by the administration’s actions today to act quickly and send legislation to the president’s desk that would help close this dark chapter of our history.”
Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said the advocacy group is “thrilled to see President Biden holding true to his commitment to pardon every person with simple marijuana charges at the federal level,” convictions that leave people “saddled with a criminal record, preventing them from obtaining employment, housing, and countless other opportunities.”
“We, however, hope that the Biden administration will go further and fully deschedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), rather than initiate a process that could lead to rescheduling,” she continued.
“Keeping marijuana on the federal drug schedule will mean people will continue to face criminal charges for marijuana,” Frederique argued. “It also means that research will continue to be inhibited and state-level markets will be at odds with federal law.”
“We urge the president to support the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, introduced in the Senate earlier this year, which would fully remove marijuana from the CSA, provide expungement and resentencing for past marijuana convictions beyond simple possession, and comprehensively repair the harms of marijuana criminalization,” she added.
Anti-poverty campaigner Joe Sanberg said that “this is what pressure and advocacy look like. This must be the first of many steps to ending our decadeslong failed policies on marijuana. Thank you to the activists who made this possible. No one should ever be in jail (or have a criminal record) for using marijuana. No one.”
Progressive U.S. lawmakers also hailed Biden’s move.
Noting that “Black and Brown folks have been disproportionately put behind bars because of this country’s racist ‘War on Drugs,'” Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) tweeted: “President Biden’s action today is an important step towards racial justice. Congress must legalize marijuana nationwide.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) welcomed Biden’s move, writing on Twitter that he’s “long believed that marijuana should be legalized and those arrested for possession should be pardoned and have their records expunged. The president’s executive action today is an important step forward, but much more needs to be done.”
U.S. Rep Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) tweeted: “Next up? Legalize it.”
The president’s move comes a day after a Morning Consult/Politico survey revealed that 3 in 5 U.S. voters believe marijuana should be legal nationwide.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states, the District of Columbia, and two U.S. territories have legalized recreational cannabis as of this May, while 37 states allow medical marijuana.