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Sanders: Biden’s Marijuana Pardons Are Good — Legalization Would Be Even Better

Sanders lauded the president’s move but said that “much more needs to be done.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on February 25, 2021.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has called for marijuana to be legalized in the wake of President Joe Biden’s surprise announcement that his administration will be pardoning thousands of simple federal marijuana possession charges and considering moving to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, known as descheduling the drug.

While Biden’s move is laudable, it’s not enough to deliver justice to people who have long suffered under marijuana convictions, Sanders said.

“I have long believed that marijuana should be legalized and those arrested for possession should be pardoned and have their records expunged,” he said shortly after Biden’s announcement. “The President’s executive action today is an important step forward, but much more needs to be done.”

Sanders’s tweet was part of a flood of calls from progressive and Democratic lawmakers and 2022 candidates for federal marijuana legalization, which they say is overdue to begin undoing the decades of harm that harsh marijuana prohibition has unleashed on Black and Brown communities in particular.

“Pardoning people convicted on simple marijuana possession charges & calling for marijuana to be reclassified is welcome news and long overdue,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri) wrote. “Next, we must deschedule marijuana completely.”

“Legalize it,” she added.

While the Congressional Progressive Caucus didn’t explicitly call for legalization, it did highlight legislation passed by the House earlier this year to federally legalize marijuana, deschedule the drug under federal law, and establish a process to expunge marijuana-related convictions.

Drug law reform advocates have also called for marijuana to be legalized, for marijuana charges to be expunged and for the drug to be descheduled in wake of the announcement.

“There is no reason that people should be saddled with a criminal record — preventing them from obtaining employment, housing, and countless other opportunities — for something that is already legal in 19 states and D.C. and decriminalized in 31 states,” Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Kassandra Frederique said in a statement. “We, however, hope that the Biden Administration will go further and fully deschedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), rather than initiate a process that could lead to rescheduling.”

Calling vast marijuana criminalization a “failed approach,” Biden announced on Thursday that he will be pardoning people convicted on simple federal marijuana possession charges, which will affect about 6,500 people, none of whom are currently imprisoned.

A pardon, which prevents people from facing further punishments for their charges, doesn’t go as far as expungement, which would seal the charges from being publicly viewable. Advocates say expungement is necessary because people with drug charges are often denied basic needs like housing or face discrimination in job hiring.

Biden is also asking the Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland to begin the process of potentially descheduling marijuana. Currently, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, the category that carries the worst penalties for selling and using the drug.

Democrats, abolitionists and drug legalization advocates have long advocated for descheduling marijuana as a step toward ending the failed war on drugs — and its corresponding war on the communities it has ravaged.