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Biden’s Action on Weed Convictions Is a First Step — Let’s Push for Much More

Many have fought for this for a long time, and this is just the first bold step in the right direction.

President Joe Biden walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House October 6, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

President Biden’s announcement yesterday on marijuana was exactly the bold leadership we needed from this administration — ahead of the critical midterm elections in one month — and a step in the right direction for what must come next if he is to attempt to right the many wrongs of the 1994 crime bill, which he had championed as a senator, and which imposed automatic life sentences for people upon their third offense if they already had two prior felony convictions on their records.

Biden’s executive order on marijuana did three key things: 1) Unconditionally pardoned people with federal convictions for simple marijuana possession; 2) called on governors to follow suit by issuing pardons for state-level marijuana possession offenses; and 3) directed the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to “initiate the process of reviewing how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.”

These orders taken together are beyond a “game changer.” They are life-changing for thousands of Americans living with federal marijuana convictions — primarily those who have already served their sentences but have continued to carry the stigma and experience the collateral consequences of those convictions.

While some may sniff at the decision to offer pardons to only about 6,500 people, that is still one of the highest numbers of pardons granted by any U.S. president in history. For those 6,500 Americans, it absolutely will change their lives for the better. By wiping records clean, Biden is opening up access to workforce and housing opportunities, as well as creating a pathway for people to finally participate in the new “green” economy of legal marijuana in states across the country.

Black and Brown folks have disproportionately been impacted by the so-called “war on drugs” and the era of mass incarceration that followed. It’s past time to not only reverse the damages it has caused but to open the doors of opportunity, so that it’s no longer primarily white men getting rich off of selling marijuana, something primarily Black men went to prison over for so many years.

Perhaps most importantly, Biden has thrown down the proverbial gauntlet, by calling on state governors to follow his example. Now, no elected governor or candidate running for higher office in this upcoming midterm election can say, “Sorry, we can’t do it.” Yes, you can! The president just took all of your excuses off the table. Your move! Which governors and state candidates are now going to step up?

Already, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf — a Democrat who is running for reelection — announced, “I just coordinated a one-time, large-scale pardon effort for people with certain minor, non-violent marijuana convictions. Under Pennsylvania law, I don’t have unilateral pardon authority — but I’m doing everything I can …”

Similarly, Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted, “When I’m governor, we will finally legalize marijuana in Texas and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession.” Other Democrats running for state offices issued similar promises, as well, while Republicans so far have remained mostly silent.

This could finally be the windfall of public support that tips the scales in favor of federal legalization and decriminalization that so many of us have been fighting for over so many years. Biden’s decision this week did not happen in a vacuum, and it did not happen overnight. Many have fought for this for a long time, and this is just the first bold step in the right direction.

As a formerly incarcerated person myself — from a community where drugs was the preferred economy, because people live in a constant survival mode — to now have those records wiped clean and so many barriers removed has me excited to see the next bold steps the president is willing to take.

Yes, this is what many who voted for then-candidate Biden were hoping for, and he has now delivered on an important part of that promise — one month before the crucial midterm elections. Now we need the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to deschedule marijuana completely, in order to fully remove criminal penalties, and we need to call on the Biden administration for broader clemency for people who’ve been incarcerated on other marijuana charges, as well.

My organization, JustLeadershipUSA, and other members of the Marijuana Justice Coalition (part of the Drug Policy Alliance) have issued our support for the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, which we believe is the next bold step Congress and the president need to take. This legislation would fully remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, provide expungement and resentencing for past marijuana convictions beyond simple possession, and comprehensively repair the harms of marijuana criminalization.

Ultimately, there is only one defensible policy direction for the federal government to take: decriminalization and clemency. Our government should pursue these two objectives as boldly as it once pursued the “war on drugs,” which caused so much of our oppression.

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