ABOVE: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House October 6, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Biden officially pardons thousands previously convicted of marijuana possession under Federal law; challenges Governors across the country to do the same
On October 6th, President Joe Biden made a major announcement that he was officially pardoning thousands of people who had previously been convicted of marijuana possession under the current Federal law.
In what is being deemed a progressive and historic move to address the disparate impact that U.S. drug policies surrounding marijuana convictions have had on Americans, especially African Americans, the president issued an official statement to make the announcement.
“Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” President Biden said via statement.
“Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” President Biden continued in his statement. “And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates.”
President Biden concluded his statement by saying, “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
In his statement, President Biden also announced three steps that he is taking to address the issue.
First, he announced a pardon of all prior Federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana, and he directed the Attorney General to develop an administrative process for the issuance of certificates of pardon to eligible individuals.
“There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result,” said President Biden via statement. “My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.”
Second, President Biden is urging all state Governors to do the same regarding state offenses.
President Biden continued, “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.”
Third, he is asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under Federal law.
Currently, Federal law classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances. This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine.
Although nearly one-half of the states in this country have decriminalized medical marijuana possession, and while several have also adopted recreational marijuana policies, it is hard to believe marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug under Federal law.
Lastly, President Biden called on all important regulations and laws relative to trafficking, marketing, and under-age sales to remain, even though many federal and state regulations regarding marijuana possession and usage have changed.
SO, WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS REALLY MEAN?
It is important to note that this executive decision by President Biden to pardon these individuals only covers people who were previously convicted of simple possession and DOES NOT apply to individuals who were convicted at the federal level. It also DOES NOT apply to individuals who have been charged with higher level marijuana offenses like selling or distributing.
This presidential pardon also DOES NOT apply to individuals who have been charged or convicted of marijuana charges at the state level, which is why President Biden is urging state Governors across the country to make an executive decision at the state level to pardon those who were convicted and received a state possession charge.
If governors choose to follow the president’s lead and make that level of executive decision, it would be massive and significantly impactful, in that there are more individuals who have been charged at the state level than those who have received a conviction under federal laws.
Despite President Biden’s pleas for cooperation from the top brass of each state, a few governors have already come out the gate stating that they will not issue pardons for simple marijuana possession convictions at the state level.
Of course, one of those governors who was quick to come out and state he will not be issuing pardons is Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who is on the ballot in November.
In a statement released via Twitter by his spokesperson, Renae Eze, Gov. Abbott expressed his sentiments regarding the call to action by President Biden, stating:
“Texas is not in the habit of taking criminal justice advice from the leader of the defund police party and someone who has overseen a criminal justice system run amuck with cashless bail and a revolving door for violent criminals. The Governor of Texas can only pardon individuals who have been through the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles system with a recommendation for pardon.”
Gov. Abbott has made comments in the past that could lead to some movement on the issue in the upcoming legislative session in 2023, should he get re-elected.
His opponent is hoping that Gov. Abbott won’t be at the helm to make those decisions, as he is running to unseat him and has gone on the record on the marijuana issue.
Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke has consistently campaigned that he would legalize marijuana if elected to replace Gov. Abbott in November’s midterm elections.
On his campaign website, O’Rourke states that Texans shouldn’t be “locked up for a substance that is legal in much of the rest of the country.”
O’Rourke continues to state on his campaign website:
“Marijuana arrests have created vast racial disparities in our criminal justice system, generated an unnecessary burden on Texas taxpayers, and diverted law enforcement officers’ time and attention away from violent crime. When I’m governor, we will legalize marijuana and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession—and we’ll use the nearly $1 billion in new state revenue and reduced criminal justice costs to invest in public schools and reduce property taxes.”
In Texas, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is considered a Class B misdemeanor and could result in up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. Polling shows that most Texans support the decriminalization of marijuana, although nothing has been done in Austin to pass legislation to reduce penalties for possession during the last two legislative sessions in Texas.
Reverend Al Sharpton, Founder and President of the National Action Network (NAN), issued a statement on President Biden’s marijuana reforms, stating:
“The United States will never justly legalize marijuana until it reckons with the outdated policies that equated thousands of young Black men with hardened drug pushers. President Biden’s righteous action today will give countless Americans their lives back. They were thrown behind bars for years on end for simple possession, a non-violent offense, for a substance that red states and blue states are now legalizing at a furious clip. This held them back from jobs, homes, and the general dignity they now get back with this full pardon. The National Action Network began pushing for these reforms nearly a decade ago, when it became clear the conversation around legalization began to change. We will continue to monitor the legalization and hold the federal government to its word. I echo the President’s call on governors to follow suit and deliver this same justice at the state level. They cannot legalize marijuana at the state house until they rectify what went on at the jail house.”
David Villalobos, who serves as the Statewide Right2Justice Coordinator of the Texas Organizing Project, issued a statement on President Biden’s marijuana reforms, stating:
“The positive change that President Biden’s actions will have on the lives of thousands of Americans cannot be overstated. His announcement marks a significant step in the right direction toward the marijuana reform that a clear majority in our country support. Already, twenty states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for nonmedical use. It also signals a further shift away from failed and discriminatory War on Drugs policies that for decades have targeted Black and Latino communities – tearing apart families, devastating neighborhoods, and contributing to our nation’s astronomical incarceration rate.”
Mattie Jackson, a TOP Right2Justice campaign member in Houston, also added:
“Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges than their white peers, yet both consume marijuana at roughly the same rates, underscoring how reforming our nation’s laws on marijuana IS about racial and economic justice. These bold steps from President Biden are absolutely welcome and must be expanded on. Countless promising lives have been shattered by our unjust marijuana policies rooted in racism. Will Greg Abbott now act on President Biden’s call for governors to pardon simple state marijuana possession offenses? Knowing our radical, out-of-touch governor, we’re not holding our breath. Of course, he won’t.”
There are still many questions looming as to how this will truly affect those who have been issued pardons by President Biden, and whether their marijuana conviction records will be fully expunged or not.
On the surface, this appears to be a major win for the thousands of people who have been convicted of nonviolent marijuana use or possession charges, and a progressive path forward to having the Attorney General and the Department of Health and Human Services reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a less dangerous substance.