I have a bunch of thoughts actually, none of them so flattering. I’m going to break them down by category.
The pardons themselves don’t do much
President Biden pardoned 6,500 people previously convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana under federal law. The pardons don’t release anyone from prison, as no one was in federal prison for this dubious crime. Everyone serving time for simple possession of cannabis is in state prison for violations of state (and not federal) controlled substances laws.
It’s also important to understand that nearly everyone arrested and prosecuted for federal cannabis crimes is nailed for trafficking (i.e., distribution and/or intent to distribute). Biden didn’t pardon any of these people, including the nonviolent traffickers. I’m guessing none of them will ever see a presidential pardon. Their only hope is through proposed legislation like the MORE Act or the CAOA, which would make non-violent cannabis crimes expungable, automatically or otherwise.
Finally, the pardon is also just a “pardon.” It doesn’t expunge the underlying convictions at issue, or clear anyone’s record. In many ways, the 6,500 pardonees find themselves in a similar spot today as prior to October 5. They are still walking around as convicted criminals of record, and will be for the foreseeable future.
Biden’s message to state Governors is (a little bit) better
It’s fine that Biden urged all state Governors to similarly issue state-level pardons (again, not expungements) for state-level cannabis crimes (again, only possession). Hopefully some of them take him up on it: it seems to have spurred some conversation, at least.
Rather than direct his attention at state-level actors, however, or in conjunction with doing so, Biden should endorse one of the many federal legislative proposals to deschedule cannabis. There are some good ones. See:
- Federal Cannabis Legislation Roundup: Part 1
- Federal Cannabis Legislation Roundup: Part 2
- Federal Cannabis Legislation Roundup: Part 3
The President’s review request to HHS and FDA is weak and maybe hazardous
Again, Biden (and Harris) should throw their shoulders into a legislative fix for the retrograde status of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). What Biden has done, however, is task a few downstream departments with reviewing things under one of the CSA’s re- or descheduling protocols.
There are a couple of reasons why this is a regrettable path. First, HHS and FDA undertook this very review, to less fanfare, only seven years ago. Based upon its “scientific and medical evaluation”, the FDA found marijuana supremely dangerous and formally recommended that the plant remain in schedule I.
It’s true that cannabis study data have continued to accrue over the past seven years. Fundamentally, however, things are no different than in 2015. The only materially different factors today are: a) FDA personnel and b) the political environment. So, here is my question: isn’t this stuff supposed to be based on science?
Finally, as my colleague Griffen Thorne wrote yesterday, HHS/FDA are more likely to recommend rescheduling than descheduling cannabis. I won’t repeat why that result would be bad. For anyone also wondering what effect rescheduling would have on state-level industry, check out this old chestnut from 2016. If cannabis were rescheduled, state licensed operators would still be on the wrong side of federal law, much like anyone who were to open a fentanyl store (schedule II), anabolic steroid store (schedule III) or codeine store (schedule V). The only difference is that marijuana stores generally comply with state laws.
On the campaign trail, Joe Biden pledged to “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.” That promise sits moldering right here on the “Black America” page of his website. Biden has done nothing. During the first year of his presidency, it seems likely that 300,000 (or more) Americans have been arrested and convicted of simple possession of marijuana. Penalties range from low-level misdemeanors to life imprisonment without parole in extreme cases.
Following Biden’s October 6 statement, he’s still in arrears on his promises. Cannabis has not been decriminalized. Convictions have not been expunged– automatically or otherwise. And the scheduling concern of cannabis has been kicked down to an agency which already got it wrong, while dragging its feet on CBD for years.
Biden’s statement has the look and feel of someone trying to set a tone on policy without taking decisive action. No one should be satisfied in the slightest. Everyone should push for more.