As the most far-reaching White House action on U.S. drug policy to date, President Joe Biden on Thursday pardoned everyone sentenced under federal law of simple marijuana possession.
Pardons are only granted for “simple possession,” a minor infraction; anyone incarcerated for more marijuana-related severe crimes, including trafficking, sales, or cultivation, will not be released. The White House said no one is detained in federal prison for “simple possession.”Read More »
Biden stated, “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
The President also called on state governors to implement stricter penalties for civil marijuana possession. He further requested the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to review “expeditiously” the scheduling of marijuana under federal law.
Currently, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it’s regarded as having no medicinal use and a strong probability of misuse. Some examples of other drugs placed in Schedule I are heroin and LSD. This classification puts marijuana higher than methamphetamine and fentanyl, two of the most notorious drugs in the country, fueling an overdose epidemic.
To summarize what Biden said, he mentioned that sending individuals to prison for marijuana possession has destroyed too many families and incarcerated people for behavior that many states no longer ban. He further stated that to add insult to injury, people with a criminal record for marijuana possession find it challenging to get hired, evicted, or enroll in school. And while the percentages of marijuana usage among whites and people of color are comparable, persons of color are disproportionately targeted for arrest, prosecution, and conviction.
The President also said that rules that limit trafficking, advertising, and sales to minors needn’t change but that states must follow the administration’s lead because most people in prison for possession of marijuana in the U.S. are prosecuted under local or state laws.
A senior administration official said that Biden has been clear that Marijuana-related laws are not working. Thus, his actions are deliberate and unilateral.
The Political Effect of Biden’s Move
The move, advocated for by proponents for months, pulls marijuana laws to the fore only weeks just before midterm elections, highlighting just how dramatically the politics of the topic have shifted in a short amount of time. Approximately two-thirds of American adults are in favor of legalizing marijuana, according to polls. Despite the widespread support for legalization, the Brookings Institution found that only one in five 2022 leading candidates discussed cannabis restructuring on their websites or social media accounts.
The practical effect, at least for the time being, may be limited. According to the White House, only thousands of people would be affected by this directive because most persons in federal prison for cannabis charges are not incarcerated for minor, nonviolent offenses.
As noted by activists, the action is unusual for Biden, who authored some drug laws that led to the present incarceration rates. Biden was the sole Democratic contender for President in 2020 who opposed federal de-scheduling, which would effectively legalize marijuana nationally. Biden is reportedly interested in having cannabis rescheduled from Schedule I to Schedule II, which would make the drug more accessible for research, legalize medical marijuana, and decriminalize possession by minors. Each of these stances is directly opposed to another’s from a legal standpoint.
The Political Landscape
Presently, the District of Columbia37 states and the District of Columbia have authorized medical marijuana, while 19 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Arkansas, Missouri, South and North Dakota, and Maryland will vote on recreational marijuana legalization during the midterms of 2022.
Chuck Schumer—Senate Majority Leader— has been working on a plan to declassify marijuana and clear it from federal databases since earlier this year. Nonetheless, the Senate lacks the necessary votes to enact this bill at this time.
Despite little Republican support, the House has twice in recent years passed legislation to end the federal prohibition of marijuana. In addition, a bill presented in the House by Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) would set aside grant cash for states that choose to erase cannabis-related records.
What Other Stakeholders Think
A senior administration official said that to address this problem, Congress members have been working, and the House has already passed a significant bill. This effort has stalled, and the current Congress is nearing its conclusion.
Democratic congressional aides told POLITICO that Biden’s Thursday announcement was not carefully coordinated with legislators beforehand. Before the announcement, the White House contacted Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), one of the co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, regarding the descheduling. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) was also contacted before the announcement.
Additionally, the Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman was informed in advance by the White House that Vice President Joe Biden would pardon marijuana offenses and review the Schedule, according to a source familiar with the conversation. Fetterman, a longtime supporter of marijuana legalization, met with Vice President Biden for twenty minutes in Pittsburgh last month and urged him to de-schedule the drug.
There is no guarantee that cannabis will be descheduled after going through the HHS and DOJ review procedure Biden has outlined. It could probably just move marijuana to a lower position under the Controlled Substances Act, which advocates have warned could complicate recreational and medical marijuana programs in states where the drug is already legal.
The Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that advocates for the legalization of all drugs, stated in a release, keeping marijuana within the federal drug schedule will result in continued criminal charges for marijuana. It also implies that studies will continue to be hampered and that state-level markets will conflict with federal law.
The Lawmakers Role
Even lawmakers with ties to Biden encouraged him to continue. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) stated on Thursday. He said that HHS research on how cannabis is scheduled is welcome. However, those working for change recognize that a complete or a whole-inclusive federal solution is required.
In an apparent response to this criticism, the Department of Justice pledged speedy action regarding the executive order.
The department said it would quickly execute the President’s pardoning proclamation, which restores civil, political, and other rights to anyone convicted of mere possession of marijuana. The Office of the Pardon Attorney will establish a procedure to provide pardon certificates to affected individuals in the following days.
There have historically been significant racial discrepancies in marijuana law enforcement. According to a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2020, blacks are about four times more likely to be imprisoned for marijuana possession than whites, even though both groups use the substance at roughly the same rate.
New Frontier Data projects that the legal cannabis market will generate $32 billion this year, with revenues reaching $63 billion by 2028.
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