With midterms approaching, President Biden has announced his administration will pardon all federal convictions for “simple marijuana possession.” The Biden marijuana pardon was hailed as “transformative” by Sen. Cory Booker and celebrated as a step in reversing disastrous “War on Drugs” policies that have been especially devastating for poor communities of color in the United States and Mexico (CNN). A sober accounting of this executive action makes clear how far we still have to go.
• Support the October 24th day of action by attending the protest in Washington, D.C., organizing a local civil disobedience, pressuring your Congressional representatives, or sharing the organizational sign-on letter.
Who will be affected by the executive order?
Everyone convicted of simple marijuana possession in federal court will receive a pardon, except for undocumented people and military members. 6,500 people have been federally convicted of simple marijuana possession since 1992 (The Nation).
How many people will go free because of this order?
How is that possible?
There are 0 people in federal prison solely for simple marijuana possession. 98% of marijuana convictions happen at the state level (The Nation).
There are 158,949 federal prisoners. Even if all 6,500 people convicted of simple marijuana possession since 1992 were released from prison, 96% of federal prisoners would be unaffected. That’s assuming that everyone convicted of the charge is still incarcerated and would be released regardless of what else they were convicted of, as well.
What will the effects of this action be?
The pardon retroactively affects anyone that was once charged with federal marijuana possession, removing barriers regarding applying for jobs, finding housing, and applying to higher education. However, the charges won’t be expunged, which means they will still be part of their criminal records. This move also directly impacts Indigneous communities living on reservations, which are regulated by the federal government (NYTimes, The Hill).
It sends a message for state governments to do the same. It encourages Congress to push for full decriminalization of the drug, which is unlikely to pass in this administration.
The Biden administration also asked for a study about the possibility of rescheduling marijuana, which is currently categorized as a Schedule 1 substance alongside LSD and heroin. Advocates and politicians have emphasized that the administration could move to reschedule marijuana immediately instead of starting with a review. As Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden puts it, “Those of us who have been advocating for reform, we already know that a comprehensive federal solution is needed” (The Hill).
Why is addressing this so important?
Marijuana enforcement has always been connected to racial injustice. Anti-cannabis laws were only created once it was associated with Mexican immigrants in the 1910s and U.S. scientists produced research linking marijuana with the “racially inferior” (PBS). The word “marijuana” was popularized to emphasize the drugs “Mexican-ness” (NPR).
According to President Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did” (History).
Though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates today, Black people are more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses in each of all 50 states (ACLU).
How has Biden evolved on this issue?
Biden co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and wrote the 1994 crime bill, instituting the racist crack cocaine sentencing disparity and “fueling a huge expansion of the federal prison system” (Salon). “The liberal wing of the Democratic party is in favor of 125,000 new state prison cells,” crowed Biden in 1994, endorsing the incarceration of almost 20 times the total number of people affected by the current Biden marijuana pardon (CNN). In 2016, Biden said he was “not at all” ashamed of such policies, saying the 1994 law “restored American cities” (Youtube/CNBC). This is a lie (Vox).
How do community organizations intend to secure real change?
Groups like the Drug Policy Alliance advocate for decriminalization of all drugs. When Portugal did this in 2001, it reduced overdoses, incarceration, and deaths (DPA). Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the Last Prisoner Project have called for a day of action on October 24, 2022, to pressure Biden to follow through on his campaign promises of legalizing marijuana and releasing prisoners (SSDP).
Being satisfied by superficial reforms ensures we will never be offered anything more. The millions of people harmed by the War on Drugs deserve better (DPA, Alternet).
• The Biden administration will pardon federal simple marijuana possession charges.
• This falls short of Biden’s campaign policies and will not result in any incarcerated people being released.
• Nobody is currently serving time in federal prison for simple marijuana possession alone.