Smoking marijuana in prison

Biden Urged to Issue Sweeping Cannabis Pardons

Federal pardons could see the expungement of millions of cannabis-related criminal convictions — many affecting communities of color.

Summary:

  • Congress issued a letter to President Biden urging him to pardon those with non-violent cannabis convictions, citing disproportionate and discriminatory effects they have on communities of color.
  • The letter was signed on behalf of 37 members of congress, who appealed to the President’s liberal position on cannabis expungement.
  • Lawmakers have taken to Twitter to further push their support for the letter that was released on February 18.
  • It has fuelled hope that a cannabis reform bill will make its way to the President’s desk sooner rather than later.
  • President Biden currently does not support full cannabis legalization, but his picks for top-level roles in his administration do offer hope for meaningful reform.
  • This could be an important opportunity for Biden to establish himself as a President for real change, as he works on reversing Trump’s policies with a flurry of executive orders.

Congress has issued a letter to President Biden urging him to pardon those with non-violent cannabis convictions.

The letter, which was released February 18 and signed on behalf of 37 Democratic Congress members, appeals to the President’s liberal position on expungement of prior cannabis convictions. It also implores him to recognize the damage that these convictions have done to minority communities. 

“President Biden’s leadership on issuing pardons to nonviolent federal marijuana offenders would demonstrate a down payment on his campaign promise to prioritize criminal justice reform,” said Justin Strekal, Political Director of NORML, in a press release. “[It will] similarly inspire similar justice-oriented actions in a non-partisan fashion around the country.”

Congress takes to Twitter

Pro-cannabis lawmakers have taken to Twitter to further strengthen their position and to place more pressure on the President to honor their wishes. #CannabisJusticeNOW has been trending in response to the letter, with several members of Congress directly addressing the President’s account.

“The failed cannabis prohibition has had horrific consequences for communities of color, especially young Black men,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) Tweeted. “Today we are urging @POTUS to act now to pardon past federal marijuana convictions. #CannabisJusticeNOW.

Another of Blumenaur’s Tweets points out the pardoning power of his predecessors, in particular George H.W. Bush who pardoned several cannabis convictions during his tenure.

Others who have Tweeted in support include Democrats Dwight Evans, Barbara Lee, Betty McCollum, and Ilhan Omar.

The War on Drugs and its impact on communities

Mass pardoning would signal an important step in repairing the damage that the War on Drugs has done to Black and minority communities.

According to a 2020 analysis, black people were more likely to be arrested for cannabis use and possession each between 2001 and 2014, despite the fact that white people use cannabis at a similar rate. Specifically, in 2008, 2010 and 2014, black people were roughly 2-2.5% more likely to be arrested for cannabis use and possession. Even in states where cannabis possession laws have been liberalized, those numbers remain disproportionate.

Marijuana use between whites and blacks
marijuana possession arrest rates between whites and blacks

Low-income communities—of which Black people are most likely to reside—are also negatively impacted, with higher than average incarceration rates for simple possession.

Hope on the horizon?

The letter has inspired hope that significant cannabis reform could be on its way, though President Biden currently does not support full cannabis legalization for adults.

However, his picks for top-level roles in his administration offer some optimism that he will not stand in the way of progress. 

Amongst them, Vice President Kamala Harris is a strong advocate for radical cannabis reform, citing legalization as a way to end the War on Drugs.

A clear opportunity for meaningful change 

At 78 years old, Biden is officially the oldest person in US presidential history to take the oath, which has attracted some skepticism amongst Republican and Democrat voters alike.

However, pardoning those suffering under the weight of non-violent cannabis convictions would almost certainly establish him as a president for true change as he sets to work on reversing Trump’s policies with a flurry of executive orders.

It would also signal a clear step in the right direction for communities of color and other minorities who have endured long periods of discrimination around cannabis enforcement. 

Biden needs to prove to young adults and minority Americans, who made up the majority of his voter base, that he is committed to working with them. This is one very obvious way he could do this and prove to them that their vote wasn’t in vain.

Marijuana smokers by age group in USA
U.S consumers, by age group, who smoke marijuana as of July 2019. By Statista

The US states already pardoning residents and expunging records 

Colorado

Colorado was the first US state to legalize adult-use cannabis in 2012 but took its time to begin expungement proceedings. In 2019, Denver and Boulder implemented the “Turn Over a New Leaf” program, which offers record sealing to those with minor cannabis convictions but doesn’t provide full expungement. Less than 100 records have been sealed to date. 

In 2020, Gov. Jared Polis pardoned over 2,700 low-level marijuana convictions. These convictions were for possession of an ounce or less of cannabis dating back to the late-70s. 

California

In 2016, California passed The Control, Regulate, and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act (Proposition 64), permitting and legalizing adult-use recreational marijuana, as well as allowing residents with low-level cannabis convictions the opportunity to clear their records. 

However, there’s one significant problem. Residents with low-level cannabis convictions must apply for it themselves. The process is costly and time-consuming. As of 2020, just over 3% of those eligible have their records cleared, a statistic that garnered criticism from state officials. 

Illinois

Illinois is one of the latest US states to offer mass expungement for residents with low-level cannabis convictions. By the end of 2020, nearly 500,000 records were expunged, marking one of the most effective and widespread cannabis expungement operations in US history.