Kudos to Biden, but pot pardons not enough
President Joe Biden grabbed headlines as he announced his intention to pardon federal convictions for simple marijuana possession. “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit,” Biden said in a statement. “It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
He’s right, and he has since received plaudits from across the country for his decision. MSNBC even hailed it as the “second most sweeping presidential pardon in modern American history.” While it is a notable act, Biden’s plan is a bit like putting a Band-Aid on someone who needs open-heart surgery. It doesn’t come close to fixing the problem, despite claims to the contrary.
“My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions,” Biden announced, and there are many consequences of marijuana arrests too, including creating barriers to employment and access to housing and post-secondary education.
The U.S. Attorney General’s office is working to implement a system of disseminating certificates of pardons to those who are eligible to help them clear the various impediments, but this isn’t enough. Biden’s pardons do not provide expungement – meaning those who have been pardoned will still bear a scarlet letter on their criminal history. This will continue to make it difficult to pass background checks and obtain meaningful employment.
Moreover, the scope of Biden’s executive order is incredibly limited. The overwhelming majority of marijuana arrests come from the states, not the federal government. In 2018 alone, over 25,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in Georgia, although that number has been steadily decreasing, and there have been many millions of marijuana-related arrests across the nation.
Meanwhile, Biden’s pardon plan will only help those convicted of simple possession at the federal level. That translates to only about 6,500 people.
In Biden’s statement, he encouraged governors to follow his lead, but that’s unlikely to happen anytime in the near future in places where tough-on-crime rhetoric is ratcheting up. Fortunately, many states and localities have been warming to marijuana over the past several years. 37 states permit medical marijuana-usage, including the Peach State.
“Georgia has voted to legalize medical marijuana in oil form for medical patients, but rules on how to distribute the product have yet to be released,” wrote the Savannah Morning News, and 11 Georgia cities have decriminalized possession of marijuana less than an ounce. Despite this, recreational marijuana remains a crime in Georgia and a host of other states.
Biden’s action does nothing to change this, and it does nothing to repeal the federal prohibition against marijuana. It will remain illegal, although Biden’s order directs the Attorney General and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to reconsider how marijuana is classified.
“Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances,” reads Biden’s statement. “This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine.” This is patently ridiculous, considering that marijuana is far less dangerous than some legal substances.
While pardoning these individuals and potentially rescheduling marijuana are laudable first steps, this is sure to generate some suspicion and be viewed as a political stunt – meant to drum up Democratic support in advance of the November elections. After all, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have deplorable records on criminal justice reform.
“As [the San Francisco] district attorney, Harris oversaw 1,900 convictions for pot offenses,” according to the Mercury News. “Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reform […] Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent,” reads a 2019 New York Times article.
Biden’s record isn’t much better. In 1994, then-Senator Biden’s infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act became law. “The law imposed tougher prison sentences at the federal level and encouraged states to do the same […] and backed grant programs that encouraged police officers to carry out more drug-related arrests,” Vox explained. Biden’s crime bill is credited with doing more to worsen the justice system than practically any other piece of federal legislation.
Biden’s recent marijuana actions are a step in the right direction – pardoning people who committed a small-time victimless federal crime that is legal in some states – but it is far from a transformative measure, as some have billed it.
To have a broader and more meaningful impact, Biden would need to work to expunge the pardoned arrests, repeal federal cannabis prohibition, and work more closely with states to enact a more consistent patchwork of marijuana laws. Until then, problems will persist.
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