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Warren, Sanders Call on Biden to Issue Pardons for Cannabis-Related Convictions

Though Biden supported decriminalization on the campaign trail, he’s only pardoned nine people for marijuana charges.

President Joe Biden adjusts his headphone during a press statement on the first day of the G7 leaders' summit held at Elmau Castle, southern Germany on June 26, 2022.

A group of six Democratic senators sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday, asking him to issue pardons for all people who have been convicted on federal nonviolent marijuana charges and follow up on campaign promises to deschedule cannabis from its status as a Schedule I drug.

The letter, signed by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), among others, applauded Biden’s recent pardons of nine people facing marijuana-related charges, but said that the administration’s general inaction in relation to marijuana has been wholly insufficient.

“We commend President Biden’s recent pardons and commutations of 78 people, including nine with non-violent cannabis related offenses,” the senators say. “However, much more has to be done to address the racist and harmful legacy of cannabis policies on Black and Brown communities.”

Tens of thousands of people are estimated to be incarcerated on marijuana charges and about half of all people incarcerated on federal charges in 2020 were being held for drug related crimes. Black people are disproportionately impacted by restrictive drug policies — which are more aggressively enforced in communities of color — and are about four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related charges.

In October, Warren and Booker wrote to the Department of Justice, asking it to use its authority to begin descheduling cannabis from the list of Schedule I drugs, a classification that puts it among the most highly regulated drugs, and which characterizes marijuana as not having a medical purpose.

The department answered six months later, saying that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had found that “cannabis has not been proven in scientific studies to be a safe and effective treatment for any disease or condition.” As the senators noted in their letter, this assertion is false, as studies have found marijuana to be effective in treating a number of medical conditions — and marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug limits scientists’ ability to study its effects.

In their letter on Wednesday, lawmakers called the Justice Department’s half-page response “extraordinarily disappointing” and said that the “assertion ignores the ability of the DOJ and Drug Enforcement Administration to begin the descheduling process and act independently of an HHS determination.”

“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,” the lawmakers wrote.

This is the second time that lawmakers have requested pardons for marijuana-related convictions. In November, Warren and Booker wrote to Biden asking him to issue a “blanket pardon” for nonviolent federal marijuana convictions, but never received a response.

Biden ran on marijuana decriminalization, though stopped short of calling for federal legislation that would do so. Still, in 2019, he told voters at an event that “nobody should be in jail for smoking marijuana,” and a spokesperson for Biden said that he “supports decriminalizing marijuana and automatically expunging prior criminal records for marijuana possession.” He has also expressed support for reclassifying marijuana as a Class II drug.

But as president, Biden has not taken any significant actions on marijuana decriminalization or offering those convicted with marijuana charges pardons or expungement, outside of his recent handful of pardons. In fact, reporters found last year that the Biden administration was actually firing and suspending people who had used marijuana in the past, even though the substance has been legalized for recreational or medical use in D.C. and 27 states.

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