President Biden wipes out thousands of federal marijuana convictions
He also called on governors to do the same in a Thursday announcement of several executive actions after years of congressional inactivity.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
President Joe Biden on Thursday afternoon pardoned all federal prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana in an announcement that the administration said would bring relief to an estimated 6,500 people with prior convictions and thousands more under District of Columbia law as well.
The president is also calling on governors to do the same at the state level for people in local or state prisons solely due to the possession of marijuana.
And he has directed Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland to review how marijuana, which is currently classified in the same group as heroin and LSD and higher than fentanyl and and methamphetamine, is scheduled under federal law.
Senior administration officials told reporters that the Justice Department will create a process for pardoned individuals to receive a certificate of pardon so that they will have documentation to show law enforcement, employers and others as needed. The officials added that Biden took action today after watching Congress fail to pass comprehensive marijuana reform and hopes his decision helps people with prior federal convictions gain access to the housing, employment or educational opportunities they’ve been denied.
Congressional Democratic leaders — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal — applauded Biden’s actions; Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, who’s led the chamber’s push to decriminalize weed said he would continue to grow support to pass legislation that brings federal marijuana laws in line with views of the overwhelming majority of Americans.
“It’s fantastic to see the Biden administration following through on his campaign promises,” Morgan Fox, political director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said to Supercreator. “And even more so recognizing the limited scope that federal pardons will have considering that the vast majority of marijuana arrests take place at the state level by acting to urge governors to follow a similar path when it comes to helping rid people from the lifelong collateral consequences of a cannabis arrest.”
During his presidential campaign, Biden promised to decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions while supporting the legalization of medical marijuana. He also committed as a candidate to leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states and rescheduled weed as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its impacts.
“I think that a lot of supporters of cannabis policy reform had been fairly disappointed with the relative inaction on the part of the administration, as well as the slow progress of measures in Congress,” NORML’s Fox said. “And so I think that this could potentially do a lot to allay any fears that Democratic voters may have had as well as provide a certain amount of cover for lawmakers that may have been either deprioritizing this issue or have been afraid to show their support because it could potentially affect them in the midterm elections.”
Fox added that he thinks the announcement will also show voters that the administration actually cares about this issue, that it recognizes the harms caused by prohibition and that lawmakers should not be afraid to embrace the issue.
In fact, 60 percent of voters say marijuana should be legal in the US, according to a Morning Consult poll released on Wednesday. And US Senate nominee and Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has made the issue a core plank of his campaign in his tight race against Dr. Mehmet Oz.
But it’s not enough to just legalize weed, experts like Jayde Powell, co-founder of Weed For Black Women, a media, culture, and community hub that empowers Black women to be their best selves through weed, told me in April.
Powell said she would propose that multi-state cannabis or hemp operators be required to reinvest a percentage of their profits into nonprofits or causes that support the empowerment of rehabilitation of victims of the war on drugs and ensure that revenue from cannabis taxes are dedicated to programs in which the individuals convicted can receive jobs at dispensaries, grow facilities, or within cannabis companies.
The White House said that Biden had been considering his options for a while and that today’s pardons build on the president’s historic grants of clemency in April when he announced 75 commutations and three pardons.
Senior administration officials emphasized that Biden is simply asking HHS and AG to undertake a review, not deschedule marijuana so there’s no guarantee that the agencies will do so or how long this assessment will take.
“The process will take some time because it must be based on a careful consideration of all of the available evidence, including scientific and medical information that’s available,” an official said. “That said, the president is calling on the Secretary of HHS and the AG to conduct the review expeditiously. This is meant to proceed swiftly.”
For such significant policy actions, it felt strange that the administration decided to announce in a statement and a video distributed through the White House’s social channels.
Senior administration officials assured us that nothing should be drawn from the fact and that it’s an important announcement that the White House wants widely disseminated.
“He wants to speak directly to the American people and this is going to be distributed widely,” they said. “This is a significant development and it is our significant announcement that delivers on the president’s campaign commitments.”
Nonetheless, the announcement — as with student debt cancelation, reforming the filibuster to pass voting rights and abortion rights and several other priorities important to Democratic voters — is the latest demonstration of the impact of grassroots pressure on the administration.
“If elected officials don’t hear from people that support cannabis policy reform, they’re not going to prioritize it. And they may end up doing it in a way that is not representative of what is really necessary in order to help end prohibition and repart the harms its caused,” Fox said. “So it’s absolutely vital for people to get involved in the process and to put pressure on politicians not just to provide tacit support — but public and vocal support.”
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TODAY IN POLITICS
President Biden this morning traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York to tour IBM and speak about the economy. He then traveled to Red Bank, New Jersey to participate in a Democratic National Committee reception. Biden this evening will travel to New York City to participate in a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reception. He will return to the White House tonight.
Vice President Kamala Harris this afternoon ceremonially swore in Dr. Arati Prabhakar to be Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the vice president’s ceremonial office.
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden this evening will arrive at San Francisco International Airport ahead of a weekend slate of events.
The House and Senate are out.
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