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Biden Issues Pardons, Clemency for Marijuana Convictions

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Biden pardons thousands convicted of marijuana charges on federal lands and in Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. (420CanNews)—Last month, President Joe Biden pardoned thousands of people convicted of use and simple possession of marijuana, following similar actions last year to address racial inequities in the judicial system. This year’s pardons affected people arrested on federal property and in the District of Columbia but did not lead to the release of anyone currently in custody.

Biden’s pardons for the combination of simple possession and use of marijuana were new, whereas the pardons given just before the midterm elections in 2022 were for prior federal simple marijuana possession offenses.

Additionally, Biden granted clemency to 11 people, reducing penalties for their convictions on federal charges for nonviolent drug offenses.

Not Everyone Pardoned

The pardon encompassed U.S. citizens and permanent residents regardless of whether the offender had been charged or prosecuted yet. The December 2023 proclamation did not include offenses such as possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, or driving offenses committed while under the influence of marijuana.

Biden’s order also applies only to marijuana, which is currently a “Schedule I” drug and thereby lumped in with drugs like heroin. Last year, the president initiated a process for review of the classification to a less-regulated status.

Eligible recipients can apply to the U.S. Justice Department and its pardon attorney office, which issues certificates of pardon.

Chart of Definitions
ClemencyGenerally, refers to a decision by an authority to reduce the punishment. Clemency can take the form of a pardon.
PardonA decision by an authority to completely absolve an individual of guilt.
CommutationA decision by an authority to reduce a sentence of a person who is convicted of a crime.
Source of Definitions:

Removing Barriers to Housing, Employment

While people already incarcerated in federal prisons were not released, the action removes barriers that convictions can bring with regards to housing and employment. In a statement, Biden said his actions would help make the “promise of equal justice a reality.”

“Criminal records for marijuana use and possession have imposed needless barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities,” Biden said. “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”

About 78 million people in the United States have felony records, CBS News reported last year. About one in two people with records said they faced challenges finding jobs, staying employed, or making a decent living, citing a report on people with convictions. Many places of employment have restrictions against hiring people with felony convictions, including schools, airports, and governments. Their average earnings were $23,000 per year, the report said.

The restrictions extend to housing, where public housing and landlords in general have rules against allowing people with convictions as residents, according to The Marshall Project.

Drug Policies and Marginalized Communities

While these pardons and clemencies are a significant stride toward criminal justice reform, they also underscore the broader conversation surrounding the push for marijuana legalization. Advocates argue that such reforms are crucial steps toward dismantling the disproportionately harmful impact of drug policies on marginalized communities.

The pardons addressed social justice on a federal level, but Vice President Kamala Harris weighed in again on the state level, where laws range from criminality to legalization for both medical and recreational purposes, according to an NPR report.

“As I have declared many times before, no one should be in prison simply for smoking weed,” she said. “That is why we continue to call on Governors to join us in this long-overdue work.”

A Mixed Response From All Sides

The public response to President Biden’s actions has been mixed, with supporters praising the move as a positive step toward justice reform and critics expressing concerns about the potential implications on broader drug policy discussions.

“Any effort whatsoever to assist those with cannabis-related convictions—whether it’s federal or state—given our evolving attitude towards cannabis, is 100% welcome,” Patrick Nightingale, a criminal defense attorney in Pittsburgh, told USA Today. “I will take whatever the president can give us, but it’s just not really going to affect that many people.”

The federal government rarely prosecutes people for simple marijuana possessions and other crimes noted in the pardons, said Nightingale and other experts quoted in USA Today. As a result, experts said the practical effect of the Biden pardons remain uncertain.

Standing up for state authority, a spokesperson for Republican Gov. Greg Abbott last year said: “The governor of Texas can only pardon individuals who have been through the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles system with a recommendation for pardon.”

While in many cases, federal law will supersede state law, the U.S. Constitution also has limitations on what Congress can impose on states. For instance, the Constitution says Congress can only impose restrictions on a state within the framework of federal authority, like declining to fund a state program or using interstate laws that are under its domain, according to a Congressional document.

Setting the Stage for Change

While remaining controversial, the Biden pardons and clemencies signal a shift in the federal approach to drug offenses, setting the stage for continued dialogue and action regarding the broader legalization and decriminalization of marijuana.

The federal effort to move marijuana from Schedule I status and states continuing to legalize both medical and recreational use will certainly change the current state of law enforcement, as revised laws will bring new scrutiny over past convictions. Ultimately, the changes in marijuana law will broaden the dialogue over issues such as social justice and drug policy reform.

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— Story Filed By 420CanNews Staff

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Statement from White House, December 2023

Statement from President Biden on Marijuana Reform, October 2022

The Marshall Project: How Criminal Records Hold Back Millions of People

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