Biden’s performative pardon of low-level federal cannabis crimes may not have resulted in the release of any actual prisoners, but it has certainly stirred the pot. Now leaders from around the country are pressing to have the drug reclassified.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden appeared to fulfill at least one of his campaign promises when he announced that he would be pardoning “all prior Federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana.”
While the move will reportedly clear the records of thousands of former inmates, allowing them to improve their access to housing and jobs, the White House confirmed that there are no prisoners currently being held on federal charges of simple possession of marijuana. Small cannabis arrests are generally made by local authorities.
The move also came short of descheduling cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances, a promise Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made while campaigning in 2019. Drugs in the Schedule I category re designated to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Scientists are not aloud to freely research drugs in this category, like heroin and LSD. Removing cannabis from Schedule I would free it up for medical use and research as well as decriminalize the drug.
Biden can presumably decriminalize cannabis at the federal level by ordering the Department of Justice (DOJ) to begin the scheduling review process. In his announcement regarding the pardons, he requested that the process begin.
D.C. Congresswoman Calls For Local Change
Following Biden’s announcement, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) called for the president to follow through on his recommendation that local authorities review their clemency process and support efforts in Washington D.C., where cannabis has been legal since 2014.
“After Biden’s federal and D.C. marijuana pardons, which I applaud, I called on the Biden administration to end its support for the D.C. marijuana rider and to endorse giving D.C. clemency authority,” tweeted the congresswoman.
In March, Congress once again approved a spending bill rider that bans the creation of an adult-use cannabis market in D.C. Since the city is not located inside a state, its laws are governed directly by Congress. That means that local authorities are unable to initiate a cannabis market whether they want to or not, and clemency for prisoners within the city can only be granted by the president.
“There’s no constitutional or policy reason D.C. should not have the authority to commercialize recreational marijuana or to prosecute and grant clemency for all D.C. crimes,” wrote Norton.
Drug Czar Hints at Reform
In a revealing turn, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Rahul Gupta told NPR that cannabis has potential medical benefits. If that’s the case, then the drug does not belong in Schedule I.
“We know—and the president as much said so—that clearly there are potential medical uses of [cannabis],” said Gupta. He also intimated that the pardons were only the first step in further reform efforts. “We need to make sure that we’re working to have a process through it, and that’s exactly why last week president Biden made these announcements,” he said.
“It is clear that our current marijuana laws have not worked, and that we need a new approach that balances science with criminal justice reform efforts,” said Gupta in a press release regarding the pardons.
In July, a group of senators sent Biden a letter urging him to deschedule cannabis and decriminalize the drug at the federal level. The move would not be out of line, considering that the president promised to do exactly that while on the campaign trail—a promise he has yet to fulfill.
The letter—signed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and others—was a follow-up on a previous request to the DOJ in October 2021 to begin the process of rescheduling or descheduling cannabis.
“The half-page response, which took over six months, was extraordinarily disappointing,” wrote the senators, “noting the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) determination that ‘cannabis has not been proven in scientific studies to be a safe and effective treatment for any disease or condition’ as the sole rationale for the DOJ’s lack of action.”
According to the senators, the U.S. attorney general has the power to seek a scientific and medical
evaluation from the HHS secretary concerning the scheduling of cannabis. If the secretary recommends descheduling the drug, the attorney general is required to do so. If the secretary recommends to reschedule the drug or leave the current classification in place, the attorney general can still begin procedures to deschedule. In other words, there is nothing barring the attorney general from beginning the process for decriminalization of cannabis right now.
“The Administration’s failure to coordinate a timely review of its cannabis policy is harming thousands of Americans, slowing research and depriving Americans of their ability to use marijuana for medical or other purposes,” concluded the letter. “We ask that the Biden Administration act quickly to rectify this decade long injustice harming individuals, especially Black and Brown communities.”
While the president did not respond publicly to the letter, the administration is apparently getting the ball rolling on reform efforts—or at least making efforts to make it appear that way. This could all be part of an attempt to swing more votes toward the Democratic Party in the Midterms. But if that’s true, and the gambit is successful, the public pressure to enact reform will be heavier than it’s ever been.