The U.S. has the largest prison population on the planet. Many of those prisoners are locked behind bars simply for being caught in possession of cannabis—a drug that is now legal for recreational use in 18 states, Washington D.C. and U.S. territory Guam. As the possibility of federal legalization becomes more likely, the discussion has turned to address social equity and public health. And while advocates and policymakers argue over how best to initiate reforms, cannabis prisoners continue to rot in jails and prisons across the country.
The 2020 presidential election was one of the most heated in recent history. It was also the first election where those running became aware of a growing number of one-issue voters who wanted to see cannabis legalized more than anything else. This led to some very exciting moments during the Democratic debates in which all of the front runners voiced at least some support of cannabis law reform.
In a particularly viral moment, Democratic hopeful Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard dressed down future Vice President Kamala Harris for her history of prosecuting cannabis offenders during her time as California attorney general. “There are too many examples to cite,” said Gabbard. “But she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations, and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep a cash-bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.” Gabbard failed to mention that the senator also actively fought against a California measure to legalize cannabis in 2010.
The heat from this sizzling clip was still being felt months later as Harris campaigned alongside future President Joe Biden. As it became clear that voters on the left wanted cannabis reform, the administration was pushed into a corner to comment on its stand. Gabbard’s comments had made many cannabis advocates skeptical of Harris, and Biden’s long history of opposing legalization in any form (he even dusted off the tired old “gateway drug” trope leading up to the primaries) left many with a bad taste in their mouths.
Presumably in a move to get ahead of criticism, Harris made headlines by promising that the administration would decriminalize cannabis. “We will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana,” she promised on the campaign trail. It was a paradigm-shifting moment. Never before had a high-profile candidate made such a promise and there weren’t many who were ready to believe the administration would actually deliver.
No Call, No Show
Their doubt was well-deserved, it would seem. In April 2021, a reporter asked Harris when the administration planned to fulfill its promise and decriminalize cannabis. “Honestly, right now, we’ve been focused on getting people food, helping them stay in their apartments or in their homes, getting kids back to school, getting shots into arms,” she replied. “That has been all-consuming.” It was the first time the topic had been mentioned since Biden moved into the White House.
Harris and Biden would repeatedly dodge questions on the matter over the following months, and advocates assumed that meant that promises made on the campaign trail had already evaporated, as is often the case.
To make matters worse, after over a year in office, the Biden administration has to deliver any positive cannabis reform. Instead, it has penalized White House staff for admitting to past cannabis use and Biden himself proposed to continue blocking legal cannabis sales in Washington D.C.
“The Biden Administration’s failure to live up to campaign statements and, in the case of including a rider preventing D.C. from regulating cannabis in his budget proposal, even backsliding on cannabis is extremely disappointing,” said NORML Political Director Morgan Fox in January 2022. “This inaction on modest cannabis policy reforms over the past year is inexcusable and is a betrayal of the people that put the president in office.”
Last month the president finally made a move that somewhat aligns with his promises while falling totally short of decriminalizing marijuana. In late April Biden commuted the sentences of 75 individuals serving time under home confinement for drug offenses—only nine of which were cannabis-related. He also issued three pardons. It’s certainly a relief to those prisoners and their families, but it falls far short of his promise. There are reportedly around 2,700 inmates currently serving time for cannabis crimes in federal prison.
It also had nothing to do with cannabis decriminalization, and the administration has yet to make a peep regarding that promise.
But clemency advocates are expressing some optimism following a White House meeting in which they say the president said he was open to cannabis clemency in the future. And on April 20, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that President Biden “remains committed” to honoring his campaign pledge.
“So he remains committed to what he said during the campaign, that people charged with marijuana-related offenses, number one, everyone gets out, record expunged?” asked Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy.
“Well again, he’s reviewing his clemency powers,” Psaki answered. “That’s exactly what that looks like.”
As cannabis legalization advocates continue to talk about healing communities that have been negatively impacted by the War On Some Drugs, they mustn’t forget the individuals who have suffered directly from these policies—the human beings locked in cages right now. Our leaders have repeatedly failed to take the all-important first step of freeing these political prisoners.