President Joe Biden argued on Monday that people should be released from prison and have their records cleared for simple possession as part of his commitment to “fair justice” and that marijuana legalization is a part of that commitment. The president claimed he was following his “promise” by providing relief to those who have been criminalized for using cannabis while speaking at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event held by the National Action Network (NAN).
“No one—I’ll say it again—no one should be in federal prison for the mere possession of marijuana. No one,” he declared. They should also be released from prison, fully pardoned, and have their entire record purged, he continued, “so that if they had to question you, “Have you ever been [convicted], you can honestly respond, ‘No.'”
Biden avoided going into specifics about the widespread pardon he granted in October, which allowed thousands of people who had violated federal marijuana possession laws to walk free. But he has frequently used the action as an illustration of a campaign promise that he has kept. It’s noteworthy that he also discussed expungement and freeing individuals who are currently behind bars for cannabis-related offenses.
He has urged governors to follow his example by granting relief at the state level where their authority may be different and where the majority of cannabis cases have been prosecuted. Technically, the pardons he provided do not expunge those records because that is outside of his executive authority.
Given that there are still thousands of people arrested for federal cannabis offenses, supporters have worked hard for the release of those who are currently behind bars. However, Joe Biden has made it clear that he will only grant relief to people who have been found guilty of simple possession, not those who have, for instance, sold cannabis.
In a study recently released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), it was highlighted that no one was currently serving time for cannabis possession and that there were historically few federal marijuana prosecutions during the most recent fiscal year.
At the MLK Day luncheon, Joe Biden also briefly discussed his administration’s efforts to obtain the release of WNBA player Brittney Griner, a medical marijuana patient who served 10 months in a Russian prison for possessing cannabis vape cartridges before a prisoner swap was negotiated last month. Biden has “shown a dogged dedication to not only protecting but increasing civil rights in the United States,” according to Rev. Al Sharpton, a criminal justice reform advocate and founder of NAN.
Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council, stated last month that the president’s executive orders on cannabis clemency and an administrative review of cannabis scheduling have helped address the nation’s “failed approach to marijuana” and are essential components of the administration’s “remarkably productive year.”
Rice was among the dignitaries who applauded Oregon’s governor for implementing state-level help in response to Biden’s call to action. While the administration conducts the cannabis scheduling review, a bipartisan group of 29 members from the House and Senate wrote the president last month requesting that he openly support federal marijuana legalization.
The letter was sent to the president and the key cabinet members in response to two significant setbacks for advocates last month, when lawmakers failed to include reforms for marijuana banking and other issues in either the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or omnibus appropriations legislation
Although the lawmakers didn’t ask Biden to take administrative action to force legalization, it does highlight the desire among proponents for the White House to take a more active role in pursuing change. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who was copied on the letter, tweeted a link to a Marijuana Moment story that covers the president’s administrative cannabis scheduling policy.
Becerra, who has a long history of supporting cannabis reform as a congressman and as attorney general of California, said at the recent overdose prevention event, “We’re going to take a look at what science tells us and what the evidence tells us. “That will direct what we do—and we hope that will direct what the federal government does.”
Following the president’s statement in October, the secretary declared that the agency will “work as swiftly as we can” to complete the scientific study. And to that aim, he has already discussed the matter with the FDA’s director. Separately, the White House’s drug czar praised the president’s decision as “historic” and noted that marijuana had “obviously” medicinal uses.
Similar to HHS, DOJ has pledged to swiftly carry out the independent scheduling study that the president ordered. The review could lead to a recommendation to shift cannabis to a lower schedule or remove it entirely, thus making the plant lawful under federal law.
The first standalone federal cannabis reform law in American history was enacted last month as the president formally signed a marijuana research bill into law. Numerous polls have revealed that Americans firmly support the president’s pardon decision and do not believe that marijuana should be federally classified as a Schedule I substance.