President Joe Biden on Thursday (Oct. 6) announced a plan to pardon people convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal and Washington, D.C. law through executive action. Biden charged the U.S. Department of Justice with developing the administrative process to achieve the executive action goal.
“As I often said during my campaign for President, no one should be in jail just for using or possessing marijuana. Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit. Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities. And while white and Black and brown people use marijuana at similar rates, Black and brown people have been arrested, prosecuted, and convicted at disproportionate rates,” Biden said in a lengthy statement.
“Today, I am announcing three steps that I am taking to end this failed approach.
“First, I am announcing a pardon of all prior Federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana. I have directed the Attorney General to develop an administrative process for the issuance of certificates of pardon to eligible individuals. There are thousands of people who have prior Federal convictions for marijuana possession, who may be denied employment, housing, or educational opportunities as a result. My action will help relieve the collateral consequences arising from these convictions.
“Second, I am urging all Governors to do the same with regard to state offenses. Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either.
“Third, I am asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. Federal law currently classifies marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, the classification meant for the most dangerous substances. This is the same schedule as for heroin and LSD, and even higher than the classification of fentanyl and methamphetamine – the drugs that are driving our overdose epidemic.
“Finally, even as federal and state regulation of marijuana changes, important limitations on trafficking, marketing, and underage sales should stay in place. Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”
Thirty-nine states have some form of legalized marijuana, either medicinal or recreational. Arkansas has legalized medical cannabis, and this November, an initiative to legalize recreational marijuana is on the ballot.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and a former U.S. Attorney, said the President’s approach is wrong.
“The President, in his announced policy on marijuana, has waived the flag of surrender in the fight to save lives from drug abuse and has adopted all the talking points of the drug legalizers. The Department of Justice should not issue blanket pardons but each case should be looked at individually. As Governor, I have issued hundreds of pardons to those who have been convicted of drug offenses. But in this time of rising crime, there should be a clear record of law-abiding conduct before pardons are issued.
“In terms of rescheduling marijuana, the president is ignoring the science that is behind the different categories of drugs. While his proposal sounds good, this is a step that has not been taken by the Obama Administration or the Trump Administration. Biden is simply playing election-year politics and sacrificing our national interest to win votes.“
The head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which has advocated for legal reforms to medical and recreational marijuana, issued a statement in response to the President’s executive action.
“Many of the efforts taken and proposed by the President today are long overdue. For nearly two years, NORML has called upon the Administration to fulfill the President’s campaign promise to provide relief to those stigmatized with a low-level cannabis conviction. We are pleased that today President Biden is following through on this pledge and that he is also encouraging governors to take similar steps to ensure that the tens of millions of Americans with state-level convictions for past marijuana crimes can finally move forward with their lives. Since 1965, nearly 29 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana-related violations — for activities that the majority of voters no longer believe ought to be a crime,” said NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri.
“Moving forward, the Administration must work collaboratively with Congressional leadership to repeal America’s failed marijuana criminalization laws. Nearly half of voters now agree that legalizing marijuana ought to be a priority for Congress, and such action can only be taken by descheduling cannabis and repealing it from the US Controlled Substances Act — thereby regulating it in a manner similar to alcohol. Congress should be inspired by the Administration’s actions today to act quickly and send legislation to the President’s desk that would help close this dark chapter of our history,” he added.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., issued his opinion on Twitter, saying the President’s action was an election-year gimmick.
“In the midst of a crime wave and on the brink of a recession, Joe Biden is giving blanket pardons to drug offenders—many of whom pled down from more serious charges. This is a desperate attempt to distract from failed leadership,” Cotton said.
“Rather than addressing real problems such as the border crisis and sky-high inflation created by his Administration, President Biden prefers to shore up political points,” said Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, the state’s chief legal officer.
Storm Nolan, a partner with Fort Smith-based River Valley Relief, one of the eight licensed marijuana cultivation sites in Arkansas, has long been an advocate for the changes announced Thursday by President Biden. He said the federal plan is a good start and hopes states will follow suit.
“That’s a lot,” Nolan said of Biden’s plan. “But we still need to convince our state legislators to do the same for state charges. Especially if adult use passes, because at that point it will be 100% legal for anyone 21 and older to possess marijuana, so obviously we need to be retroactive, and clear the records of those with that (simple possession).”